Electronics Assembly for Poverty Wages: Behind Silicon Valley's Instant Millionaires...
"Hurry up Line 1! You are not here to talk, you are here to work! GEE-VAAAN WHAT'S THE HOLD UP?!"
The tone and ferocity of her words carried a certain violence. They were intended to elicit immediate obedience, the way a prison guard uses a night stick.
Jivan had only been at the plant for a few months, but he had grown accustomed to the daily harassment, so he simply did what was commanded and went back to stocking the conveyer belt with printers. "You know, in India workers would not stand for this treatment," Jivan told me while hiding a rebellious smirk from the supervisor who had just finished barking at us.
Jivan and I had taken a minute's rest to talk about our lives outside the plant. It was a minute we felt was well-earned. Our line had met our daily quota of 846 components already, yet our only reward was the humiliating scolding from the supervisor and the promise of more back-breaking work at even faster pace. It was near the end of another monotonous and dehumanizing day on the assembly line in Silicon Valley.
Jivan had come to the U.S. a year ago from Kerela in south India where he ran a metal shop making bolts and screws. Just as my parents did over 30 years ago, he had come to America for the educational opportunities for his children. Jivan says that he plans to return to India after his two boys finish school--the same thing my parents promised themselves when they first came from India.
In the highly volatile and unstable labor market of what is being touted as the new economy, Jivan has found himself trying to stay afloat and provide for his family by doing the only work which has remained consistent to the Valley for the past 20 years: low-wage electronics assembly. In the Valley, low-wage assembly and manufacturing has been the anchor of technological and economic growth. Perhaps explaining its rather hushed existence, it is a labor niche which has been created and reserved for immigrant workers of color. It is a place where others do not go for work. It is grueling work physically, mentally, and emotionally, offering only poverty-level compensation.
NO ASSEMBLY REQUIRED?
Ironically, the work is the base of one of the most prolific profit-generating industries in modern times.
The popular psyche has accepted the notion that technology in the Information Age is produced by some sort of divine intervention--so advanced that it requires no actual assembly or manufacturing, features its predecessors of the Industrial Era found so essential. Yet every computer, printer, and other piece of technological wizardry bought at Radio Shack is birthed in what is usually a very inglorious assembly line production site.
Electronics production requires so much labor that the high-tech industry employs one out of every five wage earners in the Valley. For the over 200,000 people in the manufacturing sector, 70 percent of whom are Asian, working conditions do not match the industry's public image.
Unlike the workers in Intel commercials, dancing around fabrication labs in choreographed bliss, the real work environment in anything but a party. Fabrication labs and other high-tech production sites are dangerous, abusive, and shockingly never seem to play danceable 70's disco.
Electronics manufacturing plants and their surrounding low-income neighborhoods are saturated with carcinogens, acids, and highly-toxic gases. Toxicology studies have shown that the chemicals in common industrial use have damaging effects on the brain and immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems. For all practical purposes, workers on the line are being experimented upon to determine the unknown synergistic results of combining these chemicals. The by-product has been industrial occupational illness rates three times that of general manufacturing.
CHEAP, DISPOSABLE LABOR
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Once known as the Valley of Hearts Delight for being the most productive orchard crop region in the United States, Silicon Valley's high-tech manufacturing is rooted in the practice of using immigrant workers to fill its uncompromising demand for cheap disposable labor.
Beginning with the Mexican Americans who once picked fruit in the Valley, the electronics industry has managed to meet its ever-increasing production orders by filling its semiconductor fabrication rooms and assembly lines with array of hard-working communities of color. Call it the industry's interpretation of affirmative action.
Not surprisingly, the view of the unintentionally diverse blue-collar workforce is lost from the safe distance of management's window. From that perspective, it is just a blur of slightly varying shades of brown skin.
A closer inspection unveils a workforce mirroring the immigration history of the area. Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, and Ethiopian women and men of all ages have joined the Latino working community. For high-tech tycoons of the new economy, it offers all the advantages of low-cost third world labor with the convenience and luxury of the United States.
In recent years, the flow of immigration has brought a new addition to the high-tech sweatshops: the South Asian worker.
The twist of fate for the thousands of South Asians on the line is that the treatment which Jivan said workers would never stand for in India is being forced upon them in the U.S. because of their immigrant standing. Being an immigrant in high-tech manufacturing means that you are classified as a "low-wage temporary worker." This means that you make $6.00 to $8.00 an hour in one of the most unaffordable places to live in the country, and have no job security and no health insurance in an extremely hazardous work environment.
Many temporary workers start a job thinking of the workplace abuses as the burdens to put up with until a better job is found. But due to the lack of the paradoxical "good assembly job," many become stuck at the same plant, at the same position and pay for years--a punishing extended sentence which slowly eats away at morale and hope. Thus temporary work becomes permanent in all the worst ways and none of the good ways.
The rocket-like ascendance of a portion of South Asian engineers and business people into Silicon Valley royalty has hidden the Third World reality of the rest of the South Asian American existence.
While the local community and the mainstream media have recognized the increasing number of South Asian engineers at the top of the computer field, acknowledgment of the thousands of South Asian workers at the bottom of the high-tech food chain has been suspiciously absent.
While workers in many industries of this size have union representation to rely upon, Silicon Valley has put tremendous energy and resources into keeping "union-free." Nor is there much of a support network in the South Asian American community. As a result, a worker such as Jivan is left in a battle for workplace justice that pits himself alone against an entire industrial complex fully stocked with money, political clout, and ludicrously effective media campaigns.
The rising number of South Asians in the manufacturing sector of Silicon Valley is an alert to animate the collective South Asian American consciousness. Particular energy must be concentrated on dissolving the separations between labor and community organizing. They are manifestations of the same struggle.
Raj Jayadev is a member of HealthWATCH (Workers Acting Together for Change), an association of immigrant workers in Silicon Valley and a project of the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health.