Controversy has blown up around how tech giant Google treats its freelance and gig workers, with scores of those employees bonding together in a strident call for change.
In a 5 December open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai – published on the blogging platform Medium  – the firm’s army of so-called ‘TVCs’ (short for ‘temps, vendors and contractors’) criticise information asymmetry at the company, as well as discriminatory attitudes towards non-permanent staff and attendant poor pay deals.
The letter says: “Google’s mission is to ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible.’ But the company fails to meet this standard within its own workplace. Google routinely denies TVCs access to information that is relevant to our jobs and our lives.
“When the tragic shooting occurred at YouTube in April of this year, the company sent real-time security updates to full-time employees only, leaving TVCs defenceless in the line of fire. TVCs were then excluded from a town hall discussion the following day. And when 20,000 full-time and TVC Google employees walked out to demand equal treatment for all workers, TVCs were again excluded from the company-wide discussion held a week later.”
It adds: “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 marginalised groups who are treated as less deserving of compensation, opportunities, workplace protections and respect.”
The letter urges Google to i) end “pay and opportunity inequity” for TVCs; ii) ensure that gig workers no longer have to wear different-coloured badges to permanent staff and iii) grant TVCs the same information access as full-timers. Since the letter emerged, the controversy has spilled over into The Guardian, with the paper revealing in a special investigation that permanent workers are actively trained to treat their gig colleagues differently. 
On the topic of rewards, an internal document warns: “Swag, bonuses, and other gifts are considered taxable income to the individual (which [parent company] Alphabet cannot report since we are not the TVC employer). It can also raise ethics and compliance concerns.”
As such, the training materials encourage permanent Google staff to write TVCs thank-you notes via Google+ rather than offer such gifts.
Is this a reasonable precaution – or a needless othering of dedicated workers?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This resonates quite strongly with our recent blog on pay differentials between agency staff and permanent workers in the UK. When policy made in one part of an organisation is filtered through the practicalities of leading and managing throughout the organisation, all sorts of problems can arise. What Google is conveying here is that it has not so much different categories as different classes of worker. But the nature of how you contract with an employee shouldn’t affect how you treat them as a person – and gig workers deserve the same level of respect as permanent staff.”
She points out: “Of course, when you are hired by a company as a permanent member of staff, you are entitled to certain protections and benefits that are part and parcel of the overall employment package. But what I find surprising about Google here is that it has somehow highlighted an entire tranche of people for whom one does not do nice things. Why are they employing these individuals if they don’t want to treat them with appropriate respect? What is it about the TVC group that makes them less worthy of kindness?”
Cooper notes: “To a large extent, Google is undermining its own brand, here. If the firm is intent upon being seen as trendy, ahead of the curve and leading the way on new ways of working – all the things that are underscored in the firm’s promotional efforts – then it’s really butting against that image. If Google is mistreating individuals who contribute to all the work that culminates in its very large profits, that says something about the brand.”
She adds: “How sustainable is it for Google to do say one thing about itself, but do another? Its technical innovations have stemmed from the input of human beings. Indeed, if we look back to the Amazon blog we ran a few weeks ago, these technology behemoths may well contribute to their own disruption, should newer competitors manage to restore the human dimension to the sector – regardless of how hi-tech it gets.”
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Image of Google office interior courtesy of Benny Marty, via Shutterstock