Ross Lajeunesse, Google’s former Head of International Relations, has claimed he was pushed out of the company for his human rights advocacy. In his recent blog post, Lajeunesse spoke out against Google’s exclusionary workplace culture, as well as the company’s suspected co-operation with human rights abuses in China and Saudi Arabia. Google’s human rights and inclusion record has been repeatedly called into question over the last number of months and Lajeunesse is the most recent of many employees who claim they faced retaliation against workplace activism.

 

A major criticism of Google over the last number of years has been its co-operation with the governments of China and Saudi Arabia with their human rights abuses. The development of Google’s ‘Dragonfly’ project, a search engine that would comply with China’s censorship and surveillance laws, faced much objection until it was eventually terminated in December of 2018. Google has also been heavily condemned for hosting certain applications of the Saudi government, including ‘Absher’, an app which enables men to track and control female family members. In response to the development of these projects, Lajeunesse claims he advocated for the integration of a human rights based approach in decision making, but that this suggestion was repeatedly dismissed. He argues that human rights concerns where overshadowed by the drive for “bigger profits and higher stock prices”. 

 

Further to its poor international human rights record, Google’s internal workplace relations have also invited criticism. According to Lajeunesse, workers from marginalised backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to unfair treatment at Google. He described young female employees being bullied and screamed at by senior colleagues, as well as “diversity” exercises in which workers were separated by race and sexuality and encouraged to shout slurs at each other. Lajeunesse says he repeatedly raised these issues with HR, but they were never meaningfully responded to. In February 2019, despite being highly rated within the company, Lajeunesse was told he no longer had a job. While Google claims this was down to company “reorganisation,” Lajeunesse holds that it was his advocacy for human rights and inclusion that cost him his career. Since leaving Google, LaJeunesse has spoken out about the importance of government intervention in the area of human rights and is currently running in the Democratic Senate primary in Maine. 

 

LaJeunesse is not the first to accuse Google of punishing worker activism. In October 2018, over 20,000 Google employees around the world staged a walkout, protesting the companies handling of sexual harassment. In June 2019, Claire Stapleton, one of the walkout leaders, retired after twelve years with the company. She says this decision came after facing months of structural retaliation against her activism, including being demoted, isolated and gaslit. Since leaving, Stapleton has spoken out publicly about Google’s systematic discrimination of women and minorities, as well as the culture of retaliation she claims is being used to quash employee action. 

 

Despite reports of punitive backlash, collective worker action continued to grow throughout 2019. A network of employee activists has tackled a vast range of issues, from promoting the rights of part-time workers to petitioning Google to rule out working with agencies such as the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In November, amidst a climate of growing labour unrest, it was revealed that the company had hired an anti-union consulting firm. Shortly after, four employee activists announced they were filing federal charges against the company, claiming they had been fired due to their role in labour organizing. The four activists believe that their termination was intended to act as a warning to other employees. Cases like these are especially threatening to Google’s contract and temporary workers, who make up 54% of its workforce and are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of retaliation. Nonetheless, it is clear that labour unrest at Google has continued to escalate in light of the firings.

 

Google’s repeated controversies in the areas of inclusion, human rights compliance, minority rights and labour relations pose serious questions about the power of Big Tech in our society. Evident in the records of companies such as Amazon and Facebook, these issues are not unique to Google and are perhaps symptomatic of a more fundamental problem. Can the profit-driven business model which dominates our economy be compatible with human rights? Or, as suggested by Lajeunesse, are these issues “the inevitable outcome of a corporate culture that rewards growth and profits over social impact and responsibility”?

 

 

Photo by Google Inc. [Public domain]

 

 

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