What it's like to work in the hightech sweatshops of Silicon Valley
Revolutionary Worker #1055, May 21, 2000
In last week's RW, the article "Living on the Bottom of Silicon Valley" described how the tremendous wealth on display in California's world-famous high-tech zone is based on intense exploitation of workers--around the world and in Silicon Valley itself.
Recently the RW had a chance to sit down with a young South Asian brother who worked in a large electronics assembly plant in the Silicon Valley. He described the dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, the way workers try to survive on their low pay, and the kind of scene that developed among workers from all over the world.
RW: Tell us about the people who worked at the assembly plant where you worked.
A: The people that I worked with were mainly immigrant workers. I think the most highly represented were from the Latino [immigrant] community. The second most represented would be the Filipinos. The third and fourth were the South Asians. And there were also some Africans, like Ethiopian and Somalian refugees. That was pretty much everyone that was at the plant, except for some of the local working community that have been here for some time--like the Chicano community. Very, very few white people.
I think our line pretty much typified the demographics of the whole workplace. There was about 35 people on a line on one shift. And of that, I would say something like 70% were women, if not more, say 70 to 80%. There was one white person that was there, too, who was not a worker but management. Mainly women, majority women, very much immigrant workers. And the ages ranged from just out of high school to people who were grandmothers and grandfathers.
The young workers were actually more of a shock to me, because when people talk about high-tech sweatshops, it's starting to become more of an immigrant working community. What I saw, though, is that the industry is very much targeting young workers of color who may not necessarily be tracked into the college program. These are folks who are already marginalized by the educational system. They weren't told that they were going to be going to college. They weren't told that they were going to be professionals. So when you get out of school, if you didn't graduate, or if you graduated without a lot of opportunities, or if you have a record, you go to a temp agency, because that's where they don't do a lot of background checks. They don't care too much if you don't have certain skills or education. And that's how they place you in the plants.
Low Pay and High Living Costs
RW: There were about 900 workers at this plant?
A: Yeah, there were two back-to-back plants, and there were 900 workers there.
RW: You said the wages were about $8 an hour. Could you talk some about the cost of living in the Silicon Valley?
A: It's sort of a phenomenal thing that wages could be $8 an hour. Housing costs and all the other costs of living have skyrocketed. A one-bedroom apartment is something like $1,200 a month to rent. So $8 an hour becomes extremely sub-living wages given that context. A friend of mine--a Chicana sister--has done assembly work since the industry kind of took off in the mid- '70s. She worked for Hewlett Packard when they were making calculators. I asked, "What's changed since then?" And she said, "Definitely the people. There's a lot more races than before. Before it was just the Chicano community, maybe some Black folk. Now there's all these Asian immigrants."
But she was making pretty much the same hourly wage 20 years back! Back then $8 an hour could afford you a decent place to live. Now she's making the same exact wages in the Valley, where it's $1,200 to rent a room. She's a grandmother living with her daughter and her daughter's children all in one bedroom. That's the only way you can do it.
RW: So basically the way people are dealing with it is they're living in the area fairly close to where they work, living with lots of people in the same one- bedroom apartment.
A: Some people are staying local and just sardineing--living with the extended family or other families. And there's also people that are moving out to places like Gilroy and Stockton where the Silicon Valley boom hasn't affected housing costs too much yet, but still working here. Our shift was from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. There were folks like this brother that lived in Stockton, something like 90, 100 miles away. He would leave his house at 3:30 in the morning, because there's already a 4 a.m. rush hour of people who were forced out of this area.
So it's really like a de facto segregation kind of set-up, you know what I mean? There's folks who have physically constructed all this wealth but can't afford to live in it. It's wild.
Part of a Global Assembly Line
RW: What is the work like? You talked about your line having a quota. What kind of work does it take to produce that quantity per day?
A: We were actually sort of the last leg of a global assembly line. Some parts were created in Japan, and some of the plastic stuff was put together in Idaho, and all those things would come together at our plant. We were the last leg before it went off to the consumer. We were doing final assembly work. So we would get these kind of half-made stuff on a conveyer belt--like an old-school, Ford-type conveyer belt, where each person has his or her own piece that they gotta put in. You know, screw it, set it up, check it, all that stuff. So, moving that fast, it was basically an ergonomic nightmare. `Cause you're doing this motion, whatever the motion is, but it was usually an awkward motion, at an incredibly fast pace.
Like I said, it was majority women, and so the men were supposed to be doing more of the lifting that happened at the beginning and the end. At the beginning of the line you'd be lifting stuff on, doing some assembly, and shipping it down the conveyer belt. Then, when it was finished and everyone had put in their parts, you were lifting it off and packaging it. It required, one, a lot of lifting, two, a lot of twisting, and three, being able to do it at an incredibly fast pace.
Almost everyone there that I saw had some sort of injury. I was 24 years old, and there was folks there that were 20, 21 years old who had thrown-out backs because they're twisting at an awkward motion several times. So, it was very hard physically for that reason, because it was this ergonomic nightmare.
Taking Work Home
RW: Were you aware of other kinds of assembly happening in that kind of large-scale, assembly line method, for high-tech?
A: Yeah, definitely. Like, chip assembly was something that was really big. That means putting together the little chips, which requires a lot of soldering. There are a lot of chemicals involved in the chip production. That's a place where there's a lot of workers, mainly the same immigrants, working on those assembly-line shop floors. There's also the packaging end, which is happening more in Fremont. A lot of South Asians in Fremont are doing things like final packaging of the product. And on the chip assembly type stuff, like I said, it was very chemically intensive. This industry has three times the occupational illness rate than any other industry in the country because it's so chemically intensive.
There's a lot of home work being done in the Valley by these temporary contract companies. What will happen is Hewlett Packard will need to put out a new product, and they'll need some new circuit chips. They'll subcontract to a company like Solectron, which is one of the major sub-contracting firms in the Valley.
What happens in putting together these assembly chips or motherboards and so on is that they'll have a rush on an order. They'll have a deadline. And so they'll tell some of the workers, "Well, why don't you take this home, get it back to me over the weekend, you can earn about 50." And the sister that's known for being a fast worker will be assigned the task of taking home these motherboards, inserting chips over the weekend. And she knows she can't say no--because in the Valley everyone's a temporary worker, and you know your job can disappear. You can't say, "No, I don't want to," because you may be gone by Monday.
So she takes that home. And then, because it was probably so much work, more than there's hours in the day, she'll have her mother and her children also doing the work--in the kitchen sink or something, using all these chemicals, exposing themselves and the entire household to all these chemicals. That's something that's very prevalent in the Valley. Mainly the Vietnamese do this work.
From Steady Job to Temp Work
RW: You worked for a company that was subcontracting to produce for a bigger company (XXX), right?
A: XXX used to be known, and still is known, as a "good employer." There's this one sister that worked next to me who's like of grandmother age, and she had worked for XXX doing assembly work. She was making over $16 an hour, which was pretty good. She had benefits, and she was on her way to getting a retirement package for XXX employees at that time--I think it was the late '80s. All the employees would get the retirement package at the end of 10 years. And at 9 1/2 years is when XXX made their shift. They decided it was more economically feasible to subcontract, use temporary work. They cut out all their workers, and they took her retirement package with them.
She was not that old, but you're considered old if you're over 35 here. She didn't know where she was going to find work, and she ended up doing temporary work. She found temporary work through Manpower, which placed her back at XXX. So she found herself doing the same exact work, doing the same exact assembly; except now she's making less than half what she was originally making--$8 an hour, with no benefits and no job security. Folks just get recycled like that. That's what's happening to people.
Dangers to Health
RW: You mentioned how the temp agency would make medical benefits available if you paid the premium, but the premium was unaffordable. What did it actually cost?
A: I think for a family it was something like $400 a month.
RW: So you're making $8 an hour and you're going to pay $400?
A: Yeah, there wasn't anyone getting the medical insurance. I made it a point to ask, "Is anyone buying this benefits program?" And no one was. No one could afford that. It was useless, really useless.
RW: You talked a bit about the ergonomic injuries. What other kinds of health problems did workers developed where you worked?
A: Our company had double the occupational injury rate in that industry. We knew that because under OSHA regulations, they have to put up a printout every February of how many injuries they've had. At that time I was already starting to feel sick. I had trouble inhaling deeply. I had this pain running down the side of my chest. I coughed a lot. And about that time, too, I was asking a lot of other people, at lunch and breaks, if they were feeling anything. And there were very similar problems--a lot of nose bleeds, a really unusually high rate of irritated asthma. A lot of people had really severely irritated asthma--much more than what would be usual out of a group of 30. Something like at least a third had irritated asthma.
A lot of people had repeating bronchitis-type symptoms. We got the material safety data sheets (which every company is required to have through OSHA) as to what are the materials that we're dealing with. We got them for the products we worked on. It turned out the substance is carcinogenic, and it also causes respiratory illnesses. This was a big deal. And the company kept denying it, saying they're "scientific probabilities" and not necessarily true. Their line to all the workers was, "Oh no, it's because it's the pollen in the air, it has nothing to do with work, it's just the high pollen season. That's why you're all getting sick."
Everyone knew that they couldn't say shit about it, either, because they would lose their jobs. A typical line that they would use to someone who would complain--like this one sister (she was pregnant at the time) who asked, "My back hurts because I'm doing this repetitive motion all the time. Can I get moved to somewhere else?" And the supervisor said, "Oh well, this is manufacturing work. If you don't feel you're appropriate for this work, then maybe you should find other work." This was a token line she used pretty much every time I put out some complaint about health and safety. The woman didn't open her mouth again after that. She eventually got laid off, too.
Solidarity That Comes from Experience as Oppressed People
RW: What else should people know about the situation in these plants?
A: There are no unions at all in this industry. That has to be questioned as to why. It's actually frightening, because Silicon Valley is being pushed all over the world as an "economic model." I honestly think that there's still a lot of racism and sexism coming from the unions. They'll look at a workplace like this and say, "Oh well, these are immigrant women. They're passive, they'll cry a little, but won't challenge the employers." But what I learned when I was down there was how much--I'll use the term--indomitable will there is. How much strength is actually in people that are working there.
And there is a lot of organizing history, revolutionary history, from the countries of where people came from. There was this brother there who hails from southern India. One day I talked with him, and he said that workers in India wouldn't stand for this. I asked him, "Yeah, well, what happened?" He said, "Oh, we would stage a garehoe." I said, "What's that?" He said, "That's when we surround management until they give in to our demands." "Oh! Right!" He said, "Oh yeah, another thing that we do is we hold city-wide bandh." I said, "What's that?" He said, "That's when we have a work stoppage, and every other industry in that city has a work stoppage, too. So the city just dies until the demands are met at this one company."
There's all of that organizing knowledge in the immigrant communities that are here. It's completely untapped.
RW: You've got this workplace that's very diverse, you've got immigrants from all these different parts of the world working side by side. What kind of unity was there?
A: There was a lot of solidarity that I think comes from work experience or oppressed experience. I'll give you an example of what our pot lucks were like. Every now and again one of the leaders on the line would tell us to bring in food the next day. We'd all bring in food. And so, we'd all end up with pansit from the Philippines and potatoes from India and burritos from Mexico--and it all tasted good together.
And there was a camaraderie that went well beyond racial or national or ethnic lines that I've never seen before, really. There were Indian workers and there were Pakistani workers there. That summer I was working in the plant, things were hot in South Asia. Pakistan and India were fighting over Kashmir, a disputed piece of land ever since the English cut up South Asia. These countries' governments have always been at each other's throats, but things had gotten extra dramatic since both countries just became equipped with nuclear capacity.
Indians in the U.S. were trippin. They had a huge march on the Golden Gate bridge to condemn Pakistan, calling them an "aggressor." But the South Asians in the plant didn't get caught up. South Asians were building bonds in the workplace based on the experience of being South Asians in U.S. plants.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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