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Precarious work behind declining US manufacturing wages

1 December, 2014A new study by the US National Employment Law Project, supported by US unions, shows that wages for manufacturing workers are significantly lower for the same jobs than they were in the past.

Overall, real wages for manufacturing workers fell by 4.4 percent from 2003 to 2013, nearly three times faster than for workers as a whole, contradicting the still widespread belief in the US that manufacturing jobs are good jobs.

Manufacturing jobs are starting to increase, with more than 700,000 positions created since 2010, after more than six million such jobs being lost from 2000 to 2010. But these are not the secure jobs with decent wages that US unions have fought to achieve for manufacturing workers. According to the NELP study, one of the most important reasons for lower pay is the increased use of temporary workers. For the first half of 2014, temporary employment agencies supplied one in every seven auto parts manufacturing workers, and from 2003 to 2013 median wages for these workers fell from $18.35 to $15.83 an hour. Temp workers can earn as little as $7.50 an hour and typically don’t receive health care or other benefits, which impacts heavily on the wages of directly hired workers.

‘While the manufacturing sector has grown in recent years, wages are lower, the jobs are increasingly temporary, and promised benefits have yet to be realized,’ says the study.

The report cites an increase in onsourcing as contributing to the growth in manufacturing jobs. Companies including General Electric, Lenovo, Ford, GM and Caterpillar have moved operations back to the US as the gap between US labour costs and those in other supply chain countries narrows. The report notes that while more jobs is good news, the quality of those jobs is declining. In the auto sector, the jobs being created are worse than the ones that were lost.

‘Workers looking for a manufacturing job, and especially one in an auto plant today, increasingly find that the only open positions are placed by staffing agencies that pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits as compared with direct hires, and that offer limited opportunities to secure a permanent-employee position,’ the study concludes.