Google’s caste system is bad for workers—and bad for Google, too — Quartz
Google is a truly unusual place to work.
The campus in Mountain View is dotted with giant statues of sweets representing the company’s Android versions—Eclair, Donut, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Marshmallow. Multicolored bikes, unlocked, line the racks outside the buildings, many of which have laundromats, gyms, photo booths, and other funny statues, plus offices with kitchens containing a dizzying array of snacks. There is free lunch (and breakfast, and minimal dinners, too).
On the surface, it all seems delightful. Certainly, I was excited when I got there on a contract as a document review attorney in 2013. But deeper engagement with the company revealed a surprising and widespread disgruntlement. At first I didn’t understand why everyone was so defensive, glum, and sullen at this otherworldly workplace. But I soon learned the reason came down to deep inequality.
Nearly half of Google workers worldwide are contractors, temps, and vendors (TVCs) and just slightly more than half are full-time employees (FTEs). An internal source, speaking anonymously to The Guardian, just revealed that of about 170,000 people who work at Google, 49.95%, are TVCs and 50.05% are FTEs. As The Guardian reported on Dec. 12, a nascent labor movement within the company led to the leak of a rather awkward document, entitled “The ABCs of TVCs,” which reveals just how seriously Google takes the employment distinctions.
The document explains, “Working with TVCs and Googlers is different. Our policies exist because TVC working arrangements can carry significant risks.” Ostensibly, TVCs are excluded from a lot of things because letting them in on the company’s inner doings threatens security. “The risks Google appears to be most concerned about include standard insider threats, like leaks of proprietary information,” The Guardian writes based on its review of the leaked document.
There was a two-year cap on contract extensions and a weird caste system that excluded us from meetings, certain cafeterias, the Google campus store, and much more. Most notably, contractors wore red badges that had to be visible at all times and signaled to everyone our lowly position in the system.
But it was also oddly depressing. We were at the world’s most enviable workplace, allegedly, but were repeatedly reminded that we would not be hired full-time and were not part of the club. Technically, we were employees of a legal staffing agency whose staff we’d never met. We didn’t get sick leave or vacation and earned considerably less than colleagues with the same qualifications who were doing the same work.
The interesting thing about this tiered system is that it also impacted full-time employees negatively. The many distinctions made it awkward for the thoughtful ones to enjoy their perks without guilt, and turned the jerks into petty tyrants. It wasn’t an inspiring environment, despite the free food and quirky furniture—standing desks and wall plants and cozy chairs suspended in the air. And ultimately, this affected the work we all did. Even full-timers complained incessantly about the tyranny of this seemingly friendly tech giant.
Another bitter irony, then, is that regulations created to protect workers ultimately incentivize employers to not hire people, and to treat contractors unequally to ensure minimal confusion. And as explained in an anonymous letter from TVCs to CEO Sundar Pichai on Dec. 5, titled “Invisible no longer: Google’s shadow workforce speaks up,” the temporary workers tend to be from groups that have been historically excluded from opportunity in society at large and in the market. They explain:
The exclusion of TVCs from important communications and fair treatment is part of a system of institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination. TVCs are disproportionately people from marginalized groups who are treated as less deserving of compensation, opportunities, workplace protections, and respect.
Someday, perhaps Google will also end up paying out to those who work for less just to be at “the best” workplace in the world. For now, however, it seems that until labor laws change to reflect the current employment reality and incentivize full-time hiring, inequality will persist—even as the company appears sweet on the outside.