People Of Color: The ‘Shadow Workforce’ Behind Big Tech

It’s no secret that big tech companies do not have very diverse workforces. According to recent diversity and inclusion reports acquired by Bloomberg, only 1 percent of technical employees at Google are Black. Twitter comes in with an insignificantly higher 2.2 percent African American employees, and Facebook says that 3 percent of its workforce and 1 percent of technical employees are Black.

Yet there are many people of color working at those companies, just not working for those companies. Larger percentages of Black and Latinx staff are contractors rather than full time employees. They’re softly segregated with different colored badges, and often don’t get access to free meals or commuter shuttle benefits. Most significantly, they are not given the stock options which make some Silicon Valley employees insanely rich.

Northern California’s KQED spoke with a highly skilled Latinx technology contractor at the software giant Salesforce. “The only people that I see who look like me are cleaning up, they’re doing custodial services, they’re at the front desk greeting people,” she said. “They’re not actually in the office doing work.” “As a contractor, you’re treated like you’re dumber, like you’re lesser than everyone else,” said the worker, who is on a permanent “temporary” contract and could not give her name or position for fear of workplace retribution. “I’ve walked into [people] in the bathroom having breakdowns — I’m talking about some of my Black coworkers, some of my Brown coworkers, they were having anxiety attacks.”

“You’re given full-load work, full-time employee work, to get paid half of the same amount,” she continued.

At Google, temporary contractors now outnumber full-time employees. This trend is slowly expanding nationwide, as 36 percent of the US workforce are freelancers, according to an analysis by Upwork and the Freelancers Union. They predict that the majority of American workers will be contractors by 2027. The corrosive effects of this trend have worsened. “Contracted laborers are disproportionately African American or [Latinx],” a 2016 study from UC Santa Cruz on the racial disparities between full-time and contract workers found. “On average, they earn 70 percent of what comparable directly hired employees of high-tech firms earn. One in three fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.”

The problem is not limited to the shuttle drivers or custodial staff at tech companies. Highly skilled engineering and programming positions are also increasingly relegated to contractor status, particularly for coders of color. A recent Bloomberg report on Google captures the dehumanizing effects of this secondhand status. “Before each weekly Google all-hands meeting, trays of hors d’oeuvres and, sometimes, kegs of beer are carted into an auditorium and satellite offices around the globe for employees, who wear white badges,” that report notes. “Those without white badges are asked to return to their desks.”

At Google, these people are called TVCs (temporary, vendor, and contract workers). They complained in a recent open letter to CEO Sundar Pichai about the “system of institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination” inherent to their segregated status. They added that, during an active shooter situation at YouTube in 2018, on-campus freelancers were not sent the safety alerts and updates that were sent to full-time employees.

These contractors staged a one-day strike last November. At the time, they noted in a Medium post that “the structural inequity built into the class system that separates ‘full time’ employees from contract workers. Contract workers make up more than half of Google’s workforce, and perform essential roles across the company, but receive few of the benefits associated with tech company employment. They are also largely people of color, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds.”

The letter is signed by first names only, as speaking out jeopardizes what little job security contractors have. Tech companies prefer using contractors to legitimate hired staff, as it keeps headcount low, and allows them to deny health care benefits, retirement funds, and disability insurance to large swaths of their workforce

This practice also widens income inequality and creates an underclass of workers whose lack of benefits powers skyrocketing corporate profits.

Facebook and Google have both refused to disclose how many contract workers they employ at any given time. A Google spokesperson simply told CNBC that“TVC are an important part of the workforce, but they are not Google employees and not privy to the same confidential company information that full-time Googlers are.”

The federal government requires disclosure of diversity numbers to assess for discriminatory practices, but a growing number of tech companies are refusing to comply. Bloomberg reported that tech firms argue this “would be tantamount to giving away proprietary technology and hand competitors a ‘road map’ to poach talent.”

That argument seems specious. As Georgetown University law professor Jamillah Bowman Williams wrote in the Harvard Business Review, it "sounds like an unusual, even suspicious, legal argument. The tactic seems to be aimed more at avoiding bad publicity than remaining competitive."

Tech companies love to cast themselves as progressive forces for social good, claiming their inventions powered the Arab Spring revolutions and give great soapboxes to marginalized communities. And while Google did change course to provide sick days and health care benefits to contractors last month, tech firms still do not give marginalized communities a voice in the boardroom, or at staff meetings, or anywhere in their full-time employee hierarchy.

About the Author

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer covering the intersection of cannabis policy and social justice for The North Star and SF Weekly. His work has previously appeared in Thrillist and the Daily Dot, and you can follow him on Twitter @ExercisingDrunk.