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LABOUR WOES

Microsoft construction workers fired for protesting, union alleges

Construction workers continue redevelopment work at Ascot Racecourse with the building of a new grandstand on 11 October 2005 at Ascot, England. (Photo: Julian Herbert / Getty Images)

Dozens of construction staff working on a Microsoft data centre were illegally fired for protesting, a union alleged in a US labour board complaint.

In a Monday filing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters accused the construction company, Dulles Drywall, of retaliating against 47 employees who had been helping build a Microsoft facility in Virginia. The software giant wasn’t named in the complaint.

Dulles Drywall terminated the workers because they mounted a work stoppage, pursued pay they were owed and tried to organize with the union, according to the Carpenters’ complaint. The filing claims the company also illegally required personnel to sign agreements saying they were independent contractors, when they should in fact be classified as employees with labour protections.

The union is urging Microsoft to adopt tougher standards to ensure its staffing vendors respect workers’ organising rights. “They should have rules to prevent this type of situation from happening,” fired employee Sandra Sandoval said Tuesday. “For all the workers who work on their projects, whether they are Microsoft employees or not.”

Microsoft didn’t immediately comment. Dulles Drywall didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry.

Regional NLRB officials will review the complaint. If they find merit in the allegations and can’t reach a settlement, they’ll prosecute the case before an agency judge. Such a judge’s rulings can be appealed to NLRB members in Washington and from there to federal appeals court, a process that could drag on for years. The labor board can order fired workers reinstated with back pay, but lacks the authority to fine companies punitive damages for violating the law.

The case represents the latest controversy over what US tech companies owe the armies of contract workers that their businesses rely on. It comes at a particularly sensitive time for Microsoft, which has been cultivating a more union-friendly reputation while working to secure approval for a $69-billion takeover of gaming company Activision Blizzard.

Microsoft has taken stands on contract staff’s treatment in the past. In 2015, the company announced it would require major vendors to provide their employees at least 15 days of paid time off per year. “The people who work for our suppliers are critical to our success and we want them to have the benefit of paid time off,” the company said at the time.

That announcement followed a vote to unionise by a group of subcontracted Microsoft bug-testers, who later alleged retaliation when their staffing vendor eliminated all of their jobs, citing a reduction in demand from Microsoft. (The companies denied wrongdoing and the workers settled the case in 2016.)

Last year, Microsoft announced a new set of principles regarding unionisation, including a commitment to “collaborative approaches that will make it simpler” for employees to exercise their rights to choose whether to unionise. In January, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) announced that about 300 video game testers had successfully formed the first union of direct Microsoft employees. The company committed to adopting a neutral stand rather than campaigning against the union, CWA said.

Labour leaders argue the company should demand a similarly labour-friendly approach from its vendors. “They have the power to fix the situation,” said Virginia Diamond, president of the AFL-CIO’s Northern Virginia chapter. “They can’t just look away.”

Northern Virginia has become a leading global hub for data centres, home to hundreds of sites supporting internet cloud technology for the likes of Alphabet, Meta Platforms and Visa. While the boom in data centre construction has drawn some local opposition over noise and environmental concerns, union leaders argue it could be a boon for tax revenue and good jobs, if workers’ rights are respected.

“They are, for the most part, an excellent employment opportunity for thousands of electricians and other skilled craftspeople,” Diamond said. “The exception is that when building the actual structure, there is pervasive misclassification and wage theft.”

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