Google Loses Dispute Over Data Centre Working Conditions

Google and contractor Modis Engineering have settled a labour case against them in what workforce organisers called a “huge win”.

The companies have reinstated a formerly suspended employee of Modis, Shannon Wait, and have acknowledged that workers at her South Carolina data centre are allowed to unionise and discuss compensation.

“This is a huge win for Shannon, a huge win for TVCs (temps, vendors, or contractors), and a huge win for our union,” said Parul Koul, executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), which was formed in January.

“In our third month, we’ve forced Google and its subcontractor to remind all workers at this centre that they cannot trample on their rights. We could do that because we organised together and knew the law.”

Image credit: Shannon Wait

Labour controversy

The settlement by Google and Modis with US union officials comes amidst a failed unionisation effort by workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

The Covid-19 pandemic has focused worldwide attention on the working conditions of staff at tech giants such as Amazon and Google, which have seen their profits skyrocket due to widespread lockdowns.

Wait approached the newly formed AWU in late January after she was suspended for complaining publicly about working conditions at Google’s Moncks Corner South Carolina data centre.

Wait had discussed hazard pay offered to staff during the pandemic, and had been sent a message by a manager reading: “It is never OK to discuss compensation with your peers.”

She said staff at the facility work in heat of around 85F (29.5C) and Google issued them water bottles, but when the cap on hers broke her employer, Modis, refused to replace it – but replaced that of a colleague, who was a full-time Google employee.

Settlement

On 27 January she wrote a Facebook post mentioning the issues and concluding, “This is why I joined the Alphabet Workers Union.” The next day, she said she was suspended for breaking non-disclosure rules.

In its complaint filed in January, the AWU alleged that Modis and its parent company Adecco were unfairly prohibiting employees from discussing compensation and had illegally suspended her for talking about supporting a union.

Under a newly announced settlement that was reached last month, Wait’s suspension was overturned and Google signed a document saying its employees “have the right to discuss wage rates, bonuses and working conditions”.

The settlement notice also says the companies will not tell employees they cannot discuss compensation with other staff or that they are not allowed to be in a union because they work for a contracting firm.

‘Ecstatic’

The companies did not admit to wrongdoing and Google did not admit to being a “joint employer” of contract staff.

Wait said she was “ecstatic” about the settlement.

“It’s far too easy for contractors like Modis to make us believe that we aren’t allowed to publicly discuss our working conditions or join unions, and Alphabet and Google turn a blind eye to this gaslighting,” she said.

“People who work in warehouses and data centres for these trillion dollar companies are tired of even their smallest rights being trampled on,” she added to the BBC.

“And they’re realising that the companies aren’t listening to their workers. So we’re going to make them.”

Google and Adecco declined to comment.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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