What It’s Like to Work Inside Apple’s ‘Black Site’(bloomberg.com)
This story is about the non-Apple employees that work at the subcontractor Apex.
To generalize, the title can be "What It’s Like to Work Inside Company X's subcontractor."
Similar stories about subcontractors with less benefits & perks were written for Microsoft, Google, Amazon. Subcontractors are always going to be "2nd class citizens" compared to real employees of the client company. The phenomenon is not specific to the tech industry. Even a workers cooperative like Mondgragon outsources work to subcontractors and those non-employees complain about not being able to participate in Mondragon's benefits.
The "subcontractors" that have the same level (or higher level) of prestige and respect as the client company would be consulting companies like McKinsey or Bain.
Well written and succinct. I especially like the nod to professional consultants.
I'm not quite sure why these stories keep coming up, given the vast amount of literature available describing why and how contracting, with it's bifurcated pay and benefits systems, can and is mutually beneficial to the organizations.
In fact the #1 thread, as of this writing, is about freelancing and has dozens of comments from freelancers.
One possible explanation for the frequency of the topic, is that it's not the structure of contracting that people are rejecting, but rather the wide disparity between the size, pay and benefits of the contractor vs the contractee. Nobody complains if Bain takes a contract with Apple, as both have good pay and benefits. Similarly nobody complains about the freelancer working for [megacorp] because the freelancer is independent and an owner. However, increase the wealth gap between the companies and now you have a story.
If I had to guess it’s because these companies are straddling the line between socially aware company (to attract this conscientious minded employee) and the realities of doing business (core competencies and flexibility when things go south). Given the above a small percentage of employees feel an obligation to look after the subcontracted workers, etc. and want to bring it up as an issue in the next election cycle.
I doubt you’ll see this attitude at GM (despite unions) or Archer Daniels Midland, etc., because they don’t try to play both sides as much.
If you take a progressive social stance like the tech companies seem to like to do, with LGBT rights for example, then you're opening yourself up to criticism when you behave like a regular corporation in a place where you might not have taken a social stance, with the labor movement for example.
What is the phrase for being penalized for trying to help insufficiently. That resentment it generates in the people who weren't helped.
This image of the protective tent failing to cover everyone is the best representation I've seen:
Is it that they are helping insufficiently, or that they are using this as a strategy for making money and showing their true colors by engaging in it only to the extent they make money? It is easier to support someone whose intentions are to help despite an imperfect execution than it is to support someone whose intention is to fake helpfulness only to the extent it beneficial to them, even when both result in people being helped.
That image comes from an article about how efforts to help people, eg expand healthcare coverage, still generate a backlash. The theory being that people not helped (or fall thru the cracks) become resentful.
Tangentially: Young me was all-or-nothing, and hated compromise. Middle aged me grew to appreciate incrementalism. Older me is rediscovering my inner ultimatist.
Hostage negotiator Chris Voss' prescription for successful negotiations is "Never split the difference." After witnessing the backlash to every progressive reform, I'm VERY open to adopting Voss' worldview.
Basically, I've adopted a "Leave no one behind." worldview.
That's a great image, thanks for linking it.
I'm not aware of a term that means what you describe, perhaps it would be tied-in somehow with arguments about "equity vs equality."
The problem is caused by the IRS and HMRC having secondary effects that make employers do this - whether every subcontractor sound be a subcontractor an employee is a different issue.
There are arguments on both sides eg a Freelance Director of Photography is not going to want to be taxed as an employee.
There's a parallel story concerning the subset of government contractors that essentially exist as staffing agencies, with two differences: - The process for landing a contract is opaque, favoring huge companies.
- The government has no bottom line to maintain, contractor value-add is not easily quantified.
So the big staffing agencies largely just "fill seats," and the individual contractor's growth potential is limited, because they realistically can't fill the seat any better on day 365 than they could on day one-- most "senior" positions are literally basis seniority and only seniority.
This because GS rates cant pay the going rate for cyber skills for example.
Its also to stop the IRS going after the employer and contractor for disguised employment which happened to Microsoft a few years back.
> To generalize, the title can be "What It’s Like to Work Inside Company X's subcontractor."
Not just as a subcontractor. I used to work for a very large company, and it was just as bad as a full-time employee (and even worse for contractors!). Both of these statements applied there:
> One described the workplace as depressing and quiet, with everyone on edge.
> “There were many people who took initiative and made things, increased the efficiency. They weren’t rewarded in any way,” he says. “There were people who had abandoned any hope. They’d come in late, leave early, and just do nothing all day. They were treated the same as everyone else.”
It was absolutely horrible, and I will never let a firm get inside my head like that again.
Does the big tech company bear no responsibility for shifting as much work as it can out to subcontractors in order to cut costs? It seems to me that they're knowingly using the subcontracting mechanism in order to get away with offering Apex's 24 hours of paid leave per year, insufficient bathrooms, and other appalling conditions without tarnishing their sterling reputation. It says right in the article that Apple reviewed the Apex site and thought it was fine.
If big tech companies want to own up to being heartless mercenary capitalists who will wring every drop of sweat out of workers and spit them out as burned-out husks with no savings at the age of 35, hey, that's the system we live in. But something seems off when they want to have their cake and eat it too– that is, they want to seem like inspiring, human-friendly forces for good, but quietly use the glow from that reputation to get away with subcontracting away a huge amount of their labor to people working in miserable conditions. There's a reason that some labels moved away from sweatshop labor: it's bad press. If Apple is going to effectively use sweatshop labor (through a contractor, whatever) they should have to eat the bad press. Don't defend it as just the contractor's fault. It's literally the exact same situation as a clothing sweatshop.
Subcontracting is extremely normal for almost any kind of business and does not need any sort of regulation. Apex or whoever should be the ones bearing the brunt of treating their employees poorly. If the labor market works correctly, companies like Apex will only ever have lower quality workers and high rates of turnover. No different than if their clients treated employees poorly. Apex bid a low price and Apple signed the contract. Their responsibility end there.
I work at tech services company that generally pays much better than the clients we work for and we are treated much better as well. We charge a lot to produce premium work. As a result, we have high-quality employees and are known to produce better work than our clients could do in-house. We have a client that is, let's say, equivalent to Apple and our relationship is great.
Incidentally, my previous employer actually did a lot of work for Apple. It was similar to my current shop. Employees were paid well and treated well. Apple put a lot of secrecy requirements on us as well as security rules (all meeting rooms need opaque doors, we could never publicize our work). Work hours were tough, but overall we were paid very competitive salaries and if Apple or any other client ever pulled the plug, we had other clients to staff workers too. Obviously we sometimes bent over backwards to retain Apple since they have such deep pockets, but it wasn't crazy.
> Apex bid a low price and Apple signed the contract. Their responsibility end there.
I just don't buy this argument. It's no different from Nike accepting bids from factories that they should know are sweatshops or utilize child labor. It's no different from (before the sanctions) employing North Korean laborers whom you know are sending home most of their pay to support the Kim regime. The mere fact that an exchange of money is taking place in a business agreement doesn't somehow magically absolve a company of ethical responsibility.
You know, unless you're VERY careful about your shopping, you're also using sweatshop labor (to manufacture your clothes, electronics etc.).
Also, I don't think that Apple is especially covert about them being a (heartless) business like everybody else. Steve Jobs even said, in response to a question about bringing manufacturing back to USA: "We're in the business of making phones, not in the business of employing people". It was clear that people were mainly just means to an end for him.
Don't get me wrong, I'm as guilty as anyone of ordering everything on Amazon or at Costco and killing local businesses, or whatever.
But I'm not running what must be one of the world's best-funded PR machines telling everyone how great I am. Let's just call a spade a spade, eh? For all the "made in California" / "environmentally friendly materials/packaging" / "100% renewable energy in our facilities" stuff that's supposed to make you feel good about buying their products, the reality is a lot more grim. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-happened-after-the-foxconn...
And anyway the particular point I was replying to is that it's pretty silly to absolve Apple of responsibility just because they put a layer of contractor between them and the bad behavior. They know what's going on. It's no different ethically from Apple doing it.
I think it's better to advocate for improvement without practicing it than it is to not practice it and not advocate.
Better to do one thing right if that's the best you can pull off!
It is not. Advocating online gives you the warm and fuzzy feeling that you did something right, without actually doing anything.
> I think it's better to advocate for improvement without practicing it than it is to not practice it and not advocate.
Isn't that the definition of hypocrisy?
Welcome to the 21st century. You're an information sharecropper. And don't tell me about the great wages because inflation is eating that up before your very eyes. It's a fucking illusion of prosperity with no actual prosperity.
The Apex site is an Apple site. They house FT employees in the same building.
>Does the big tech company bear no responsibility for shifting as much work as it can out to subcontractors in order to cut costs?
> spit them out as burned-out husks with no savings at the age of 35, hey, that's the system we live in.
This sounds really bad until you look at the happy contractors making over 6 figures, and are on track to retire in their 30s.
Everyone likes to complain, everyone wants more money. If you are making 6 figs and can't retire by 40, that was a personal decision.
This was a weirdly meandering, clickbaity article, because the only piece of news is that they found this building and talked to a few people inside of it. What is the article advocating for? Is it for Apple to pay $100/hr for data tagging or move those jobs abroad and pay $5/hr? I'm not sure.
7 million people live in SF Bay Area, and of those only about 800,000 work in technology . An article like "hey, look, someone sorta-kinda works for Apple, but doesn't make $300,000/yr" is incredibly ignorant for the reality of the majority of Bay Area residents. If you take a teacher's lifetime financial growth path, it'll look bleak, compared to a recent grad at a FAANG. However, that won't generate as many clicks.
>This was a weirdly meandering, clickbaity article, because the only piece of news is that they found this building and talked to a few people inside of it.
The article very explicitly uses terminology to imply that the report is about an intelligence community black site. The article says this explicitly:
> Workers say managers instructed them to walk several blocks away before calling for a ride home. Several people who worked here say it’s widely referred to within Apple as a “black site,” as in a covert ops facility.
It says it is widely referred to within Apple as a covert ops facility. (It doesn't say jokingly referred to that way.) In addition it uses the word back door in the second paragraph, which is really evocative. It says:
>From the outside, there appears to be a reception area, but it’s unstaffed, which makes sense given that people working in this satellite office—mostly employees of Apple contractors working on Apple Maps—use the back door.
An editor who didn't want to evoke this would change it to secondary entrance, or simply, "don't use the main entrance". They wouldn't use the term back door. Bloomberg isn't some tabloid.
For better or for worse, people are missing that the article calls this a "covert ops facility" (using those exact 3 words) similar to room "Room 641A" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Room_641A
Finally, the suggestion to walk several blocks before hailing a ride doesn't make sense in any normal employee context. The article is calling this an intelligence community site, says so very explicitly, and puts that term in the title.
NOTE: I got mod approval to post this response, since I am doing so from a throwaway, but not to break the site guidelines.
While the conditions weren't nearly as bad as those in this article, I experienced some of this as a contractor for Walmart at their Sunnyvale office.
On Thanksgiving, they had a special lunch prepared for everyone that had to come into the office (mostly just to monitor and be ready if anything went down). There were emails and signs, everyone was excited about it. When I went down with my team, they stopped me and a couple of other contractors at the door and said we couldn't go in unless we were full-time employees. There was no mention of that anywhere. We had to go get lunch somewhere else.
A couple of times a year they would buy movie tickets for everyone at a nearby theater. At lunch, the full-time staff would leave to go watch a movie for a few hours while the contractors stayed in the office.
Both of these weren't really a big deal, but they definitely made you feel like you were a second class employee.
There are limits of what they are allowed to provide to contractors before the Department of Labor says, “I don’t care if you call them contractors, you’re treating them like employees so you need to give them all the same benefits”. Companies using contractors are doing so specifically so they don’t have to provide those benefits, so they need to be very careful not to cross that line.
That's a good point.
I wasn't trying to say they should have offered these benefits to everyone, but sometimes it seemed like the contractors were just ghosts. It would have been nice to at least have these activities mentioned somewhere so you had some idea of what was going on (and if contractors were or weren't included).
Sometimes the full-time employees would all get up to go do something and you had no idea what was going on (and if you should go with them or stay back).
Yes, you've described exactly why this is a bad practice.
As unfortunate and depressing as it is, a lot of that is required or strongly encouraged by the IRS. Otherwise, it starts treating the contractors as actual employees: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/understanding-employee-vs-contr...
Sadly, the entire point is that they are not employees, let alone second class ones. In the end, it boils down to the perennial question of how much of your work is done by employees and how much by vendors. And it always leads to awkward situations. (Quite a few of those when I was an employee at Google and something I don't see as much anymore, luckily.)
This is almost definitely not about the IRS--or at least it is only to the extent that Walmart might use that as an excuse. It's very likely that Walmart is already treating them as de facto employees with scheduling and management practices. Letting them eat at Thanksgiving isn't likely going to be to be the straw that tips the scales to employee.
IRS: here's a list of things that can be evidence you are using contractors as employees.
Walmart: OK we'll ignore every single one of them except that we won't provide them with health insurance, we won't withhold tax, and we won't let them eat Thanksgiving dinner or go to the movies.
There is a massive problem with employers skirting the law with respect to this, but companies don't care because enforcement isn't consequential enough to make them care.
I thought the whole reason companies care this much is because it enforced. The go to example of what happens when you treat contractors like employees is what happened to Microsoft where they got sued for breaking this line.
That happened in 1989/1990. The regulatory landscape has changed a lot in 30 years.
Also I'm not saying it's never enforced, I'm saying the enforcement isn't consequential or consistent enough to convince companies to stop treating contractors like employees.
Sure. So a contractor gets flexible hours, the possibility to telecommute and leeway on how projects are handled right? Give that a try some time as a contractor and let us know how hard the company tries to abide by those rules. I'm sure it'll work out swell.
I have worked as a contractor for Apple. I have to say that my personal experiences have been generally positive. Although I am only working with them at certain periods so it's not like I'm a "full-time" contractor so I can understand the frustration of being in that kind of position.
Overall, I found them to be very accommodating and concerned with our needs. They treated us well. There has never been any expectation on my part that I would be receiving any regular employee benefits. I felt like Apple treated us better than our actual employer/sub-contractor and if there was anything good coming to us it was from Apple and not our sub contractor.
The only thing I can relate to is the toilet situation. For some reason Apple has offices that can accommodate 100s of staff with literally 3 toilet cubicles to go around. The toilet door is like a conveyor belt and I often have to go several times until I can find an empty cubicle. Whoever designed these offices severely underestimated the allocation of toilets.
I did a tour of Pixar and they said Steve Jobs wanted to have 1 bathroom in the whole building. That would force everyone to walk past each other and encourage more interaction.
Turns out this wasn't allowed by building codes, but I wouldn't be surprised if somehow this "spirit" made it's way to Apple as well.
Although I've had the same problem in every male dominated tech company office I've worked in. A few years back Amazon had to have people work from home because there weren't enough bathrooms in their office.
What are these people doing? I couldn't figure out what the contractors actual jobs are. If they're tech workers and they don't like the conditions aren't there many other good options in Silicon Valley? I know it's not easy for everyone to switch jobs and interviewing is very hard but why's it so much harder for these contractors in particular that means they're putting up with conditions that are so bad, like access to bathrooms?
Never heard a toilet stall referred to as a 'cubicle' before. A cubicle is where my desk is located, and that is not in the bathroom :)
Might be British English as it sounds normal to me.
Toilets are a problem at most tech companies it seems. They build the bathrooms under the assumption that the gender ratio in the building will be relatively equal, but then the actual employees end up being 70% male and lines to use the men's bathrooms abound.
> Workers say managers instructed them to walk several blocks away before calling for a ride home.
Huh? Why? Zero context and zero explanation given.
This article seems pretty sensationalist... when it's just describing the entirely normal practice of contracted employees.
I mean, seriously... complaints about lines for the men's room after lunch? Spoiler alert: (non-contract) employees of big tech companies encounter those too. All the time, from personal experience. Or that the color of one's badge is a "sad grey"? Give me a break.
Yes there are some arguably valid arguments to be made against the prevalence of contract workers in modern America... but this article ain't it.
>complaints about lines for the men's room after lunch? Spoiler alert: (non-contract) employees of big tech companies encounter those too.
Interestingly enough, that's one of my biggest complaint working @ Bloomberg.
At Google, things got so bad in some Mountain View buildings, where few were contractors anyway, that they started adding fancy bathroom campers in the parking lots.
I always wanted to find out if there was any relationship to the signs that warned people not to urinate in the showers...
>Huh? Why? Zero context and zero explanation given.
To not appear too numerous every day at 5pm right outside the office entrance and draw suspicions as to what is in there?
Right because leaving an office at 5pm on a work day is suspicious...
Only really works if they are trying to give the impression that NO ONE works there at all, in the uk you will have plenty of satellite offices (and heck I’ve seen plenty of head offices) with little to no branding out front esp if they don’t expect clients / customers turning up at their door.
>Right because leaving an office at 5pm on a work day is suspicious...
Doesn't have to be suspicious, it just has to draw attention to be unwanted: if you don't want to draw attention that it's an office and there are tons of people there work on Apple stuff, that is, which seems to be what they want to hide ("black site" et al).
> but this article ain't it
Well, this is from Bloomberg. It's about what I expect these days.
I've worked at a number of famous tech giants and none of them have enough men's bathrooms. I'm not sure that lines for the bathrooms are the strongest point of this article.
The move towards gender-neutral bathrooms has been the most effective salve to this particular problem.
(Hiring approximately equal numbers of male and female employees would also fix it, but that's a difficult hiring and pipeline problem, and gender-neutral bathrooms are created by new signage.)
>gender-neutral bathrooms are created by new signage
Not quite. People tend to expect more privacy in gender neutral bathrooms. This is a particular problem in America where toilet stalls are built to minimize privacy. Banks of urinals don't really work either.
In general, I think it's very unlikely that gender neutral bathrooms (beyond single stall bathrooms) are going to be accepted wide scale in the near future. If there is some kind of legislation or regulation that makes them necessary or desired I think it's going to move towards multiple small single rooms setup like the multiple rooms in portable toilet trailers.
Speaking as a woman, I really don't mind there being a bank of urinals near gender-neutral facilities - helps keep them less occupied. One of the few wonderful things of going to a tech conference as a minority is the amount of unoccupied women's bathrooms.. it's unusual!
Also a woman, and I don't mind urinals being there... as long as no one is using them. Which isn't particularly realistic if it's a normal multi-person bathroom.
>I really don't mind there being a bank of urinals near gender-neutral facilities
You don't mind them in a separate room nearby? Or you don't mind them inside the gender neutral bathroom?
Oh yes to clarify! I don't mind them being nearby. Not inside.. that would be awkward.
screams into a pillow
My least favorite job was at an investment bank where men outnumbered women 100:1. Urinals were always clogged with garbage, toilets were left unflushed, and sinks regularly filled up with human waste.
"We did an investigation and determined we meet the regulatory requirements for bathroom facilities."
ok but did you meet the real-world ones?
"I don't understand the question."
Sinks? What sort of waste???
Do you really want to know?
Amazon at one point was required to install more bathrooms in their buildings because it was so bad. It still is, but is was then too.
What is it about toilets in American companies? I often go to the bathroom and just sit there and cry for 10-20 minutes. It’s almost impossible to do in America. They remind me of Chinese corporate toilets. European ones are the best. Private area without anyone disturbing you.
We even have press switches to keep the lights on in the toilet if the crying takes too long.
Too many burned-out American workers were using the stalls to cry, I guess.
So their complaints are that they have to work in a bland looking office with an under stocked vending machine and there are lines for the bathroom. You are all so out of touch with regular people it’s ridiculous.
Comparing lack of access to a gym to a being in a 'black site' (location where lack of oversight of security services has been allegedly used to facilitate torturing people) is truly stupid.
I'm really curious about something. Most contractor jobs seem to be meaningfully distinct from the work that direct employees are performing, whether it's stuff like security and cafeteria, or stuff that is too specialized, like short-term needs (this is the Bain thing).
But how does it come about that companies have both direct employees and contractors carrying out identical tasks in their core business? In the valley, this question amounts to: how does it come about that companies have both direct employed and contractor devs? What is it about the developers that causes them to land on one track rather than another; what is it about the products that companies are building that causes them to decide to staff one with direct employees and another with contractors?
Does anyone have some insight into this? This is the part of the contractors in the valley story that strikes me as really weird---the market rate for a package of skills in a firm ought to be more consistent than it it seems to be given the contractor/direct thing.
It's hard to find good people.
It's not uncommon to have more work in a given area than you have employees to do that work. So, you hire contractors to fill in.
But are contractors allowed to do all the things that employees can do? If not, then you've just created a whole new series of problems for yourself.
Been there, done that. On both sides of the fence, multiple times.
Why hire a contractor with the same skill set over an employee with the same skill set?
Seems like the answer to the question in the title is: Not that bad.
This is nothing new and hardly unique to the tech industry. Back in the 90s I worked summers at a factory that made door latches for Honda, Chrysler, and Nummi. About 1/3 were "temporary employees" employees of Manpower even though some people were there for over a year. Same job lower pay and no benefits.
I worked for Ericsson for three years as a contractor (two tours), I looked at it as a leg up - but eventually you either fail out, or you build up enough confidence in yourself, that you know even if this job goes away - you'll find another, and if you don't, you don't.
This sounds like poor oversight (and policy) on the apple side however - and apple should be making sure that all employees are treated well - and contractors are employees, just indirect ones.
I honestly stopped reading at this:
> The restrictions were just one of many reminders of the contractors’ inferior status, right down to the apple design on their ID badges. For direct employees, the apples were multi-colored; contractors got what one described as “sad grey.”
Really? Really? Even Bloomberg knows how much of BS this is:
> It’s common for companies to distribute different badges to contractors
The badging at Apple and what you're allowed to do on the basis of your badge color, is the second-worst that I've ever personally experienced.
The worst was when I was a government civilian, working in the Pentagon, and I had a security clearance. The badges made it very clear who had what level of security clearance, and that governed where they could go and what they could do.
But at least the US Government had a pretty good reason for the way they treated people in that way.
Can you give me an example of how apple was so bad?
> Vending machines to be understocked, and to have to wait in line to use the men’s bathrooms.
Oh the horror! Somebody alert OSHA. Come on Bloomberg, I know outrage stories generate the most clicks and profit for you, but this is getting absurd.
It's map editing. Big deal. Why is this a big secret? And why is it even in Silicon Valley? It should be someplace with a labor and housing surplus but a job shortage.
the seedy underbelly of being a "tech employee"?
I am working at an Apple Black site. Nothing special about it really - could have been anywhere and I wouldn’t know this was Apple if wasn’t able to see it at my badge. Then again I worked on secret projects the last 20 years for various companies. Guess it gets old fast.. like photographing women or eating chicken. Not that interesting in the long run....
Have you found something that always stays interesting yet?
Breathing. Experienced meditators say that the breath remains interesting even after decades of practise.
I feel that music and art could bear lifetimes of study without getting boring as well, but I might just be a slow learner.
You know, never in a million years would I have expected the reply to be breathing. I can't argue with that either, better breathing is something I think I'll take a lifetime improving.
>“It was made pretty plain to us that we were at-will employees and they would fire us at any time,”
most employees across the country are at-will, do people not know this?
I was hoping it would look cool and was disappointed to see it was the same glass and trash metal building we see in strip malls.