(Bloomberg) – The new Apple campus in Cupertino, California, is a symbol of how the company considers itself an employer: it simultaneously inspires its workers with its exceptional size while pampering them with its four-story cafe and 100,000-square-foot fitness center. But a group of Apple contractors finds that another building, located six miles away, on Hammerwood Avenue in Sunnyvale, is a more appropriate symbol.
This building is as bland as the main campus of Apple is striking. From the outside, there seems to be a reception area, but it does not have staff, which makes sense since the people working in this satellite office, mostly employees of Apple entrepreneurs working on Apple Maps , use the back door. Workers say that officials have asked them to walk several blocks before calling for a ride home. Several people who have worked here say that Apple generally refers to it as a "black site", as in a secret operation facility.
Inside the building, former workers, they say, were expecting the vending machines to be underserved and queuing to use the men's washrooms. Architectural surprise and pleasure were not a priority here; After all, Hammerwood contractors leave almost all after the end of their 12- to 15-month missions.
It is not uncommon for workers not to spend as long. According to 14 current and former contractors employed by Apex Systems, a company that employs the building, as well as by other Apple mapping offices, the company was operating under the constant threat of a cessation of business. ;employment. "It was clear to us that we were volunteer employees and that they would fire us at any time," says a former subcontractor from Hammerwood, who, like most workers interviewed for this story, speaks under the covered by anonymity signed a confidentiality agreement with Apex. "There was a culture of fear among the entrepreneurs who infected me and who probably spread it."
Apex, not Apple, manages the workers he's hiring. Apple asks outsourcing companies to treat workers with "dignity and respect." Following a request from Bloomberg News, the company conducted a surprise audit of the Hammerwood facilities and found a work environment compatible with other Apple sites. "As we do with other vendors, we will work with Apex to review their management systems, including recruitment and termination protocols, to ensure transparency and prior disclosure of conditions." from the job to the workers, "said a spokesman for Apple in a statement. declaration.
Buddy Omohundro, director of services and general counsel for Apex, says in an email that his company is working to create the best possible work experience. "Apex offers many ways for employees to voice their concerns, directly and anonymously, and to ensure that these concerns are resolved," he wrote.
Apex is a tiny part of a vast global network of recruiting companies working with Apple. it's not even the only company that uses the facilities of Hammerwood Avenue. Just for Apple Maps, workers are spread across multiple locations in Silicon Valley, as well as in Austin, Texas; London; the Czech Republic; and in India, according to the people who worked on the project. The operation involves thousands of contractors. In Hammerwood, the population has sometimes exceeded 250 people, although their number fluctuates and that Apple has refused to give a current count.
Places like Hammerwood are undermining the mythology of Silicon Valley as a kind of industrial utopia in which talented people are working hard to make up for huge salaries and stock options. In the San Francisco Bay area, it is often felt that the high cost of living, attributable to the obscene wages of the industry, is the only serious problem in the technology sector. But many of these poorer residents are also working in technology. For decades, contractors and other contingent workers served meals, drove buses and cleaned toilets on technical campuses. They also built printed circuit boards and written and tested software, all in exchange for an hourly wage and minimal or no job security.
In different forms, temporary work as an alternative to full-time employment has increased in the US economy. Businesses in many sectors are now using recruitment companies to handle tasks formerly performed by full-time workers. The technology industry offers one of the most striking examples of the divergence of group fortunes. Although companies are not required to disclose the size of their workforce, there is ample evidence that high-tech firms rely on a large number of subcontractors and agency workers. Last year, Bloomberg News reported that Google's direct employees at Alphabet Inc. accounted for less than half of its workforce.
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The treatment of these workers is emerging, along with sexual harassment and military contracts, as the main target of the wave of technology worker activism that has developed over the past two years. When Google employees staged a strike last November, many contingent employees did not learn what they were in advance because they do not have access to internal mailing lists. A month later, Googlers sent an open letter to the company's management asking for better working conditions for temporary workers, salespeople and contractors.
Apex-managed Apple Maps operations provide a gloomy view of contract work, according to current employees and former Apex employees. Some found a job there with the hope of finding a full-time job at Apple – a possibility, he said, that Apex played – to find that the odds were low. As Apple has faced headwinds in recent months, this has further reduced the practice of converting all contract workers into full-time positions, according to a person familiar with Apple's business.
Other Apex workers have taken the job just to put Apple on their resume. Even this advantage was tenuous. Apex officials initially distributed specific information that they could include in their LinkedIn profiles, referring to their employer, Apple, via Apex Systems. Last summer, Apex said they had to delete the word "Apple," describing their employer solely as "a major technology company via Apex Systems," according to two former employees.
The restrictions were just one of many reminders of the inferior status of contractors, up to the apple shape on their ID badges. For direct employees, the apples were multicolored; The subcontractors have what is called "a sad gray". It is common for companies to distribute different badges to contractors, a practice that unsatisfied industry workers have seized as evidence of a caste system. Amber Lutsko, who worked for Apple via Apex in 2017 and 2018, described a keynote speech at the opening day aimed at making her feel both honored and excluded. "You work at Apple now! You succeeded! She recalls. "You are not allowed to use the gym."
Silicon Valley companies have created vast fortunes with far fewer employees than the giants of society that preceded them. This is partly explained by the fact that you can reproduce software in infinity in a way that you can not use, for example, with a T model. But the technology sector was also the first to adopt the transfer of essential functions to contractors. According to Louis Hyman, author of the book "Temp." From 2018, all the changes have helped fuel the ideology of Silicon Valley in terms of flexibility and speed. then in software and business operations. Hyman quotes a 1993 issue of Apple's internal magazine, which describes the shift from direct employees to contractors and outsourcing companies as a "predictable evolution" and "the future."
Conflict is inevitable in a two-tiered workforce. As early as the 1990s, the entrepreneurs of Microsoft Corp. challenged their professional status in court and attempted to unionize. In 2014, a group of Microsoft bug testers got the right to negotiate with its employer, a recruitment agency called Lionbridge Technologies Inc. In a few years, Lionsbridge had removed all their jobs.
Apple, which employs about 130,000 full-time employees, also accepts employees from nearly three dozen recruitment companies, according to OnContracting, a website providing market information to recruiting firms. Outsourcing companies work on iTunes and server infrastructure, manage customer support, and select items for Apple News. Apex, the largest division of ASGN, a suburban Los Angeles-based recruiting firm, has provided Apple with a steady stream of mapping technicians, whose jobs include verifying that Apple software tracks the right routes. location or reacts reports of inaccuracies in existing maps.
They are mostly between the early to mid-twenties and often finish their studies. Salaries are usually around $ 25 an hour, which some workers consider generous and others considered stingy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2017 median hourly wage for nationwide mapping technicians was $ 20.84, while the median hourly rate for the same jobs in California was $ 30.61.
Apex employees have access to health insurance, although premiums are high enough for some people to choose not to take it. Because the workforce is young, Apex workers often stay under their parents' health insurance rather than solving their own problems.
Apex also changed suddenly aspects of employment. By November, the maximum number of sick hours paid by employees could go from 48 to 24 hours a year, noting that the policy would come into effect in two days, according to two current employees and an internal email accessed by Bloomberg. The email that Apex workers received Thursday afternoon inspired a rare moment of collective action. A group of more than a dozen workers said that they were suddenly sick and that they left, according to an Apex employee who participated in the protest.
"At any time, Apex has provided as many paid sick leave as required by law," Omohundro said, adding that the company was working to find exceptions in individual cases.
Many Apex employees first heard of the company via LinkedIn. The company browses the website for people familiar with mapping techniques, such as geographic information systems or geography, and sends them over and over again. Lutsko had worked as an archaeologist and had two jobs in 2017 when, as she describes it, she basically gave up. "They are aggressive enough, so it was easy to get the job done," she says.
At the beginning of the interview process, Apex does not mention the company in which people will work. But revelation can tip flickering candidates. "They said it was with Apple – it was really cool at first – and I thought, 'Oh my God! Says a former Apex employee who started in 2017. "Will that be on my resume?" ! Kick & # 39; "
The secret has just made the job sexier. Many Apex workers assumed that discretion was necessary because Hammerwood had links to autonomous cars. Their own work proved to be tedious. Still, they talked about the mysterious group of direct Apple employees who also worked on the site. They never knew for sure what these people were preparing, because they say that Apex officials prevented them from contacting Apple employees unless it was necessary to do their job immediately. A former Apex employee stated that contractors were not allowed to use the bathrooms on the side of the employees who were directly in the building.
Complaints about bathrooms were commonplace. Lines were formed outside the men's rooms, especially around noon, according to former employees. (Because the numbers were predominantly male, women's rooms had sufficient capacity.) Anonymous complaints about inadequate facilities were scribbled on whiteboards around the desk. Twice in 2017, Hammerwood workers filed a lawsuit against Apple with the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Cal / OSHA. Apple told Cal / OSHA that it had reviewed the situation and determined that it was in compliance with the law. According to information obtained by Bloomberg News through a public registration application, there has been no question of dissuading Apex workers from using certain bathrooms . The agency did not pursue the issue.
The work environment was uncomfortable in other respects, according to current and former contractors. Apex managers sometimes interrupted the unauthorized socialization of water chillers. Several workers said that their managers would receive notifications if their workstations were unused for too long. "Being monitored in this way is extremely dehumanizing and terrifying," says a former Apex Mapping Technician.
If Apex did not seem to trust his workers, the feeling was reciprocal. They described a deceptive hiring process in several ways. First, Apex did not explain the one-year postings started by several weeks of training followed by a test, according to many. Anyone who did not succeed was fired immediately. The company has recruited all over the country. Some workers went to California, signed leases in one of the country's most expensive real estate markets, and lost their only source of income in a matter of weeks.
There are no reliable figures on the frequency of these preparations; Omohundro says that the "vast majority" of employees complete their tasks. But they seemed important even for those who passed the test. Lutsko said that looking at colleagues suddenly losing his job has hindered him for his new employer. "I could not stand the arbitrariness of everything," she said. "The starry-eyed kids come out of the Iowa bus thinking they're coming to Silicon Valley just from university. L & # 39; bait-switch. "Oh, you did not succeed in training, give us your badge now."
Lutsko left before the end of his contract. LinkedIn posts from Apex recruiters persisted. It was common. Two people who were fired by Apex said the company periodically put them out of work. "You got rid of me because of my quote performance without a quote, and every three months I get those emails," says one of them. "It's insulting, honestly."
Like any other group of like-minded people, the Hammerwood workers have created links. Several former entrepreneurs said that it was fun to rub shoulders with people their age and that the strange atmosphere was only bringing them closer. As many of them were young, recently arrived in the area and were not earning enough money to live on their own, they ended up pooling their resources to rent apartments or houses nearby.
Many people have simply chosen similar jobs from other tech companies once their jobs at Apple are complete, so their homes have both Facebook, Google and Uber entrepreneurs. Several people described the outsourcing workforce of geographic information systems as a resource shared by large technology companies. People who were leaving Apple were joining GIS staff from another company and finding out that it was mostly made up of Apex veterans.
Those who have left Apple often say that their lives have improved. Facebook management has posted posters around the campus saying "Entrepreneurs are also people", and contingent employees have participated in arts and crafts activities on campus. Google paid more than its competitors and let everyone use the gym, says Nick Wilson, who worked at Apple via Apex, then Facebook and is now a subcontractor doing mapping work at Google.
Moving from one company to another does not seem like a progression, says Wilson. "None of the skills I've acquired at Apple could be postponed," he said, adding that his leaders were indifferent to any attempt by employees to stand out. "There were a lot of people who took the initiative and did things, increased the efficiency. They have not been rewarded, "he says. "There were people who had given up hope. They would come home late, leave early and do nothing of the day. They were treated the same way as everyone else. (Lutsko and Wilson refused to discuss the exact nature of their work or the building in which they worked, citing their confidentiality agreements.)
The mood at Hammerwood faded at the end of last year, after the changes to benefits and after the dismissal of Apex, about two dozen people, according to two current employees of Apex. One of them described the workplace as depressing and silent, with everyone at the end. "I'm afraid of being too sociable because they might think it's not working hard enough," he says. "Apex handles all cancellations in a sensitive and confidential manner," says Omohundro. "The company does not share the details of employee layoffs, whether motivated or not."
Activists associated with the growing labor movement in the technology industry say the outsourcing workforce is ready to organize, but acknowledge that it has been difficult to recruit white-collar workers. "It's a new concept," says Yana Calou, organizer of Coworker.org. Information workers have been more reluctant than security guards and cafeteria workers to compete with tech companies because they are looking for full-time jobs, says Calou. "I think there's the small idea of," I'll be the exception that passes through. "
This feeling ends up fading. A 32-year-old Apex employee living in a housekeeper's residence in a house with eight roommates said years of uncertainty had left him exhausted. "How are you supposed to plan your future if your job has an expiration date?" He says. He is a native of California and moved to San Francisco more than ten years ago, earned a master's degree and integrated the optimism of Silicon Valley. But that evaporated on the so-called black site of Apple. "It sounds good when you say you work at Apple, but if you do not get the same amount and you're not treated the same way, it gets old quickly," he says. "I do not see why they did not hire someone and did not give him a stake in the company."
-With the help of Josh Eidelson and Mark Gurman
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