Nested layers of temp agencies allow WalMart's supply chain to shave pennies through terrible, illegal working conditions

Dave Jamieson has a long investigative feature in the Huffington Post about the lives of subcontracted temps in the American warehouse supply-chain. Jamieson describes a world of nested layers of temps -- "temp agencies that supervise temp agencies that deal with temp agencies" -- providing layers of plausible deniability for the titanic corporations on whose behalf all the work is conducted. The agencies are "fly-by-night," operating from "garages, convenience store parking lots and, in one case, a Super 8 motel room," which means that it's nearly impossible for workers to get redress for illegal treatment.

Combined with the economic downturn and the cuts to employment benefits and the social safety net, this creates a perfect storm for horrific working conditions in the warehouses that serve the largest companies in America, such as WalMart. Workers are illegally docked pay, denied access to toilet facilities (one worker interviewed for the story describes how she got a bladder infection because she wasn't allowed to use the toilet while working), paid less than minimum wage, and billed for their own pre-hire background checks.

Meanwhile, the companies at the top of the chain are thriving, turning over great profits even in the midst of recession, and claiming no responsibility for the working conditions that their subcontractors' subcontractors workers endure -- despite the deliberate creation of this many-arms'-length relationship for the purpose of dodging liability.

Six lumpers at the warehouse filed a class-action lawsuit on the heels of the state investigation. Everardo Carrillo and his co-workers say they've been moving Walmart goods in a warehouse where the temperature regularly climbs to over 90 degrees, walking in and out of 53-foot-long steel containers that get even hotter baking in the Southern California sun. After working for a set hourly wage, the workers claim that a year and a half ago they were switched to a piece-rate pay plan -- an arrangement largely out of a bygone era. Their bosses told them they would earn "much more money" under the new scheme, which paid them according to the container, but their earnings actually fell, according to the lawsuit.

The workers claim it was never made clear how their pay was supposed to break down -- an allegation apparently bolstered by the state's investigation. They claim that when they complained about their confusing paychecks, their supervisors responded by sending them home without pay or refusing to give them work the following day. The lumpers were working on a temp basis. According to the lawsuit, the majority of workers were direct hires as recently as 2006; now, three out of every four workers are temps.

When asked if a Schneider executive could be interviewed about allegations from temp workers in its warehouses, a spokesperson sent HuffPost a statement, saying its labor suppliers are "separate corporate entities": "The only legal avenue which Schneider has to enforce their compliance would be to terminate the contract with these vendors. We have no plans to terminate the contracts with our vendors; our expectation is that they will comply with all applicable statutes, regulations and orders."

Walmart, whose products the workers were handling, also kept an arm's length from the charges. When HuffPost reported on the state investigation and lawsuit in October, a Walmart spokesman said the retailer is "not involved in this matter." When a similar lawsuit was filed in April in Illinois -- again, naming low-level companies contracted to move Walmart products -- the company asserted its distance from the allegations then as well, a spokesman noting that "the facility isn't operated by Walmart nor are the people who work in it employed by Walmart."

The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty And The American Warehouse (Thanks, Deborah!)

(Image: Beautiful Day at the Walmart store in Gladstone, Missouri, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from walmartcorporate's photostream)