Google contractors working on Assistant software allege wage theft

Members of the search giant’s "shadow workforce" complain about being mistreated.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Google's army of temp workers outnumber its full-time workers, according to a report Tuesday.

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Google's got more than a hundred thousand full-time workers worldwide, but it's got even more contractors that help do some of the heavy lifting. On Wednesday, a group of temps that work on the Google Assistant, the search giant's digital helper software, alleged wage theft, according to a report by The Guardian

The group, part of an internal team called Pygmalion, responsible for helping the Assistant software understand natural language, said Google pressured contractors to work overtime without extra pay. After an internal complaint, Google fired the executive in charge of the project, The Guardian said.

"Our policy is clear that all temporary workers must be paid for any overtime worked," Eileen Naughton, vice president of people operations, said in a statement. "If we find that anyone isn't properly paid, we make sure they are compensated appropriately and take action against any Google employee who violates this policy." 

The wage theft allegations come a day after a report by The New York Times said the company's temps, vendors and contractors, or TVCs in Google parlance, outnumber full-time employees. As of March, Google had 102,000 full-time workers worldwide. The search giant has 121,000 TVCs, the Times said.

TVCs typically don't make as much money and have different benefits than full-time workers. When Googlers staged a historic walkout in November to protest the company's handling of sexual assault allegations aimed at key executives, the protest organizers also demanded better treatment for the company's "shadow workforce." Some temp workers have also complained about "being expendable" within Google's culture.

"If someone is not having a good experience, we provide lots of ways to report complaints or express concerns," Naughton said in another statement. "We investigate, we hold individuals to account and we work to make things right for any person impacted."  

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the headcount figures.

Google workers have ramped up activism over the past year to protest several workplace issues at the search giant. Employees have also called out Google's military contracts and its work in China.

Issues related to TVCs have also been a big topic of protest. In March, more than 900 Google workers reportedly signed a letter demanding better treatment of Google's extended workforce. The letter, from March 27, complained about Google shortening the contracts of several members of the personality team for the Google Assistant, according to a report by The Guardian.

After that protest, Google said it'll require temp companies that supply the search giant with temporary and contract workers to provide its staff with full benefits. Those benefits include health care, a $15 minimum wage and paid parental leave. However, the new policy will go into effect starting next year. 

Watch this: Google employees protest tech giant's handling of sexual misconduct

Income inequality has also become a topic of focus for Silicon Valley protestors. While TVCs typically make less than full-time employees, Google's highest ranks have been paid handsomely. From 2014 to 2016, Google CEO Sundar Pichai received stock grants of about $450 million. But Pichai turned down a big restricted stock grant in 2018 and hasn't received a sizable equity award in more than two years. Bloomberg earlier Wednesday reported the news.

Pichai refused the grant because he said he was "already paid generously," Bloomberg said, but it could also be an attempt to manage the optics of his pay. 

Originally published May 28 at 10:41 a.m. PT.
Updates, May 29: Adds details of Pichai's compensation and report of Google contractors alleging wage theft; recasts headline and top of story to focus on wage theft angle.