Google data centre workers speak out against unfair practices
Fri 10 Dec 2021
Google is a company that has, as a core value, “you can make money without being evil.” But recent public complaints from data centre workers alleging unfair labour practices throw this core value, along with the idea that the company provides a warm, supportive environment for its workers, into question.
The company’s policies and practices have recently been the target of criticism from regular employees, and from the contractors that are increasingly responsible for running Google’s data centres. According to a comprehensive report published in Data Centre Dynamics, Google data centres are being staffed more and more frequently by TVCs – the company’s name for temps, vendors, and contractors – and disparate treatment of the two groups is gaining attention.
TVCs are not eligible for the same benefits including medical insurance and paid time off. According to one employee, “Attendance policies are different, and the work expectations are definitely quite different.”
Moreover, temps, vendors and contractors are paid far less than regular full-time employees, for similar work. This practice is prohibited in some countries but is legal in the United States. And even in countries where these pay practices are illegal, Google still knowingly broke the law and underpaid contract workers by $100 million, according to the New York Times.
TVC employees are also kept under the control of the contracting companies that place them in their positions, with extremely short-term contracts. By providing three-month contracts, workers are in a near-constant state of anxiety that their employment will be cancelled – further limiting a contractor’s ability to speak out against unfair labour practices.
And for those that outlast the three-month renewals, there is a hard two-year time limit for contractors. According to DCD, every TVC placed through contracting firm Modis is terminated after two years of employment. They must wait six months to apply for a new position.
Why have this limit? It seems counterproductive – after investing time and resources into TVCs, the company would lose the knowledge accrued by contract workers. It could be connected to a court case from 2000, when a group of workers successfully sued Microsoft, stating that as long-term contractors, they deserved the same consideration, compensation and benefits as regular full-time employees.
Keeping contractors on a strict two-year time limit may be aimed at preventing Google contractors from being targeted in a similar manner.
While the actual number of TVCs currently placed in Google data centres isn’t publicly available, it is estimated to be in the 130,000 – 150,000 range. This makes the number of TVCs (working for few benefits and lower salaries) much higher than the number of regular full-time employees in Google data centres.
Contract employees in the data centre have also complained of unfair day-to-day practices, like the distribution of swag. They have been cautioned not to discuss their salary with other employees, even though prohibiting a worker from discussing salary in the workplace is against U.S. labour laws.
Even more disconcerting, TVCs allege that they were misled about the bonuses that would be granted to them for work completed during the pandemic, and about the potential that a contract position might lead to full-time employment.
Companies with global data centre footprints relied heavily on data centre employees during the pandemic, looking to them to help keep the lights on in an uncertain social and economic environment. At Microsoft, data centre employees even slept in facilities overnight when needed, to ensure that critical services were not interrupted.
It seems that after years of unfair labour practices, and with the added complexities of a global technical labour shortage, TVCs at Google have had enough. Although many have lodged complaints under the condition of anonymity, they are becoming more and more frequent.
Google’s employment issues aren’t limited to TVC’s, however. Recently, three regular full-time employees filed suit against Google, alleging that they were fired for protesting Google’s agreement to provide services to the Trump-era Customs and Border Control – in violation of their own ‘don’t be evil’ adage.
While Google is likely profitable enough to withstand the outcomes of legal actions taken by employees, it does strain the public perception of Google as a worker-focused, fair-minded, not-evil technology company.