- A group of cleaners employed by a contract cleaning company used by Google is threatening to strike over what they allege are poor working conditions at its London offices.
- These workers are accusing the contractor of withholding bonus payments, refusing to provide contractual sick pay, and cutting the workforce, and are now threatening to strike.
- Their concerns highlight the growing frustration caused by Google's heavy reliance on contract workers, creating a two-tier workforce in which many are locked out of the company's legendary perks and benefits.
- The cleaners are publicly calling on Google to take action, but a spokesperson says compensation and benefits are all determined by the contractor firm.
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Some of Google's contract cleaners in London are threatening to go on strike over what they say are poor working conditions at the California tech giant's UK offices.
The cleaners, who work for London-based contract cleaning firm Principle, allege that their employer has withheld bonus payments, refused to provide contractual sick pay, and drastically cut the workforce at Google's offices — effectively doubling their workload, a move that they say resulted in at least four workers suffering from leg and back issues.
Their discontent highlights the growing tensions caused by Google's two-tier workforce: While the $837 billion tech giant is legendary for its lavish perks and sky-high salaries, it also has legions of contract workers, who are not entitled to the same benefits, and which some workers say makes them feel like second-class citizens in Google's workforce.
Reached for comment by Business Insider, Google said that as the workers are employed by another company, it is up to the contractor to determine their compensation and benefits — but the workers and their union feel differently.
A spokesperson for Principle declined to comment on the cleaners' claims.
The frustration by Google's London cleaners has already translated into real-world action: In early October, a group of around 20 of the cleaners and union supporters gathered around Google's Kings Cross, London offices to protest what they argue is the unfair dismissal of two cleaners who had been pushing for better working conditions as union representatives of the Cleaners & Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU).
A month before Principle was due to sit down with CAIWU to discuss the issues raised by cleaners, the two reps were suspended from their jobs at Google's offices, in what the union calls an "incredible coincidence." One of the cleaners told Business Insider he was accused of being involved in the disappearance of a mobile phone in Google's office; he denies this, and says he has not been shown any evidence. CAIWU said the second cleaner was accused of being involved in the disappearance of other unspecified items, but these charges were later dropped by Principle. Both cleaners have been suspended on full pay and are waiting to hear the outcome of an investigation by the cleaning firm. Google and Principle declined to comment on the matter.
At least 18 cleaners are now threatening to strike if Principle doesn't address the issues they have raised, and are publicly calling on Google to take action. "Google is one of the most recognizable brands on the planet. It's also one of the wealthiest," the union wrote in a recent press release. "So why can't they look after their cleaners properly?"
In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: "Our suppliers determine compensation and benefits for their employees and we hold them to our Supplier Code of Conduct, which requires that they comply with the law regarding legally-mandated wage and benefits, healthy and safe working conditions, prevention of harassment and discrimination."
They added: "While we expect suppliers to provide their employees with channels to raise concerns or report issues, we also give our extended workforce access to the same helpline as Google employees to report concerns, including the option to report anonymously."
Google's "shadow workforce" is coming under fire
Google's workforce structure has come under intense scrutiny over the last year.
A report from The New York Times in May 2019 revealed that the number of contract and temporary employees at Google, dubbed its "shadow workforce," now outnumbers full-time employees. According to the Times, Google employs roughly 121,000 temps and contractors versus 102,000 full-time workers. (A Google spokesperson declined to provide workforce figures to Business Insider.)
These employees, also known as TVCs (temporary, vendor, and contract workers) have become increasingly vocal about their treatment at Google's offices and are fighting for better pay and workplace protections.
In December 2019, a group that claimed to represent the TVCs sent an open letter to Google's CEO Sundar Pichai protesting working conditions. "The exclusion of TVCs from important communications and fair treatment is part of a system of institutional racism, sexism, and discrimination," they wrote. "TVCs are disproportionately people from marginalized groups who are treated as less deserving of compensation, opportunities, workplace protections, and respect. We wear different badges from full-time employees, which reinforces this arbitrary and discriminatory separation.
It added: "Even when we're doing the same work as full-time employees, these jobs routinely fail to provide living wages and often offer minimal benefits. This affects not only us, but also our families and communities."
While Google has come under particularly heavy fire over its use of contract workers, the model is widespread across the technology industry. According to data from OnContracting, a company that helps people find temporary contract jobs and which was cited by The Times, 40% to 50% of workers at technology firms are contractors.
Cost is likely a major driver of the model: OnContracting estimated that these companies can save, on average, as much as $100,000 a year per employee by opting for contract versus full-time employees.
"They squeeze workers to the maximum"
In the case of Google's cleaners in London, labour advocates this employment setup means that they are left with very little job security.
"If the client has a great relationship with the employee, but the contractor has a problem, the contractor can dismiss them and it is hard then to prove whether or not there was a genuine issue with the employee's conduct at work," a CAIWU spokesperson wrote in an email.
"Additionally, both client and contractor can, in some cases, use this relationship to justify substandard working conditions to the employee, each claiming that the other is imposing the conditions," she added.
Google declined to comment on whether it would recommend that Principle addresses the cleaners' demands.
In 2018, the median wage of a Google employee was $246,804, according to its parent company Alphabet's most recent annual report; UK employees earned an average of £226,000 last year. Google's contract cleaners in London earn a fraction of this, £10.55 ($13) an hour — or around £21,900 a year ($26,946) for those working full-time.
Henry Ramirez, one of the union reps suspended in August, said that working conditions at Google's Kings Cross office deteriorated just over a year ago, when Principle started to cut back on the number of cleaners it sent there. Rather than having two cleaners on each side of each floor it was cut back to just one member of staff per floor, he said.
Alberto Durango, general secretary for CAIWU, said that this contract setup means that Google is still able to boast that its cleaners are being paid the London Living Wage of £10.55 an hour ($13), even as their workload doubled.
"They squeeze the workers to the maximum," he said. "That's the problem of outsourcing … people get exploited in this system."