Jivan and I take a minute’s rest to talk about our lives outside the plant. It is a minute we feel is well earned, and certainly due to us. Our line has met our daily quota of 846 components, yet our only reward is the humiliating scolding from the supervisor and the promise of more back-breaking work at even faster pace. It is near the end of another monotonous and dehumanizing day on the assembly line in Silicon Valley.
Jivan came to the U.S. a little under a year ago from Southern India where he ran a metal shop making machinery parts like bolts and screws. Just as my parents did over 30 years ago, he came to America for educational opportunities for his children. Jivan says that he plans on returning to India after his two boys finish school, just as 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 entering into the only work which has remained consistent in the Valley for the past 20 years – low wage electronics assembly.
In the Valley, low wage assembly and manufacturing has been the unstated 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 niche that sits at the bottom of the rung, a place which native workers prefer to avoid. Although it is grueling work physically, mentally, and emotionally, it offers sub-livable compensation to its hidden workforce. The work is ironically the foundation of one of the most prolific profit generating industries in modern times and is located in one of the world’s most powerful financial hubs.
A popular misconception accepted about the Information Age is that technology is produced by some sort of divine intervention so advanced that it requires no actual assembly or manufacturing, unlike its predecessors of the Industrial Era. Yet, every computer, printer, and technological gadget in between bought at the local Radio Shack is birthed in what is usually a very inglorious assembly line. Electronics production requires so much labor that the high-tech industry employs one out of every five wage earners in the Valley (Economic Development Department). For the over 200,000 people laboring in the manufacturing sector, 70 of whom are Asian (San Jose Mercury News April 16, 1999), working conditions do not match up to the industry’s public image. Contrary to the charismatic Intel commercials displaying workers in fabrication labs dancing around in choreographed bliss, the real work environment is anything but a party. Fabrication labs and other high-tech production sites have proven to be dangerous, and abusive.
Despite its “clean” reputation, the modem high-tech workplace is actually a highly toxic work environment. Electronics manufacturing plants and their surrounding low income neighborhoods are saturated with carcinogens, acids, and highly toxic gases (Hawes, Workplace Hazards for High-tech Workers, 1996). Toxicology studies have shown that the chemicals in common industrial use have damaging effects on the brain and immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems. These studies report findings for less than two percent of the 80,000 industrial chemicals that have been comprehensively tested for potential longterm effects on human beings (Hironaka/Cuadros, Environmental Justice Starts in the Workplace, 1996). For all practical purposes, workers on the line are the unwitting laboratory animals in a perverse study to determine the synergistic results of combining these unknown chemicals. The by-product has been industrial occupational illness rates three times that of general manufacturing (Eisenscher, Silicon Fist in a Velvet Glove, 1993).
Although exploitation of the immigrant is nothing new to California or the Silicon Valley, its growth as a defining feature of the industry’s economic “success” has never been more obvious to its growing low-wage contingent workforce. Once known as the Valley of Hearts Delight for being the most productive orchard crop region in the United States, Silicon Valley is now rooted in the practice of using immigrant working communities as fodder to feed its uncompromising demand for cheap disposable labor for hitech manufacturing. Beginning with the Mexican Americans who once picked fruit in the fields of the Valley, the electronics industry has managed to meet its ever increasing production orders by filling its chemically intensive semiconductor fabrication rooms and assembly lines with an 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, working with unusual anxiety and endurance for 8 to 12 hours a day. It is as permanent a fixture to the factory image as the white walls and graying ceilings.
A closer inspection unveils a worker demographic mirroring the immigration history of the area. Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, and Ethiopian women and men of all ages have joined the Latino working community to create a globally represented workforce in the very centralized geographic region of Silicon Valley. For high-tech tycoons of the new economy, it is a set-up which offers all the advantages of low-cost Third World labor with the convenience and luxury of the United States. As a result of current immigration inflows, high-tech sweatshops have been supplemented in the recent years with a new addition-the South Asian worker.
A twist of fate for the thousands of South Asians on the line is that the treatment that is being forced upon them in the U.S. because of their immigrant standing. Being an immigrant employed in high-tech manufacturing means that you are classified as a “low-wage temporary worker.” In Silicon Valley, this means that you make $6 to $8 an hour in one of the most unaffordable places to live in the country, and have no job security, and no health insurance despite the extremely hazardous work environment. Many temporary workers start on a job thinking of the workplace abuses as the burdens of a transitional reality, something to put up with until a better job is found. Due to the lack of the paradoxical “good assembly job,” many temporary workers remain 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 with all the disadvantages of the former, without any benefits of the latter.
MODEL MINORITY MYTH
The meteoric rise of a portion of South Asian engineers and business people into Silicon Valley royalty has been an inspiring tale of immigrant entrepreneurship, producing a phenomenal $16.8 billion in sales when combined with the success of the Chinese. South Asians have amazed industry pundits because many of them have immigrated in just the past two decades (Mendoza/Associated Press, Immigrants Find Success in Silicon, July 2, 1999). The fact that there are over 20 publicly traded companies each with sales in the millions founded by or run by Indians in Silicon Valley seems to have given tangible evidence to the “model minority” paradigm. The successful South Asian entrepreneurial class has created high-tech industry associations such as “The Indus Entrepreneur” to institutionalize their elite status and growing political clout. The model minority myth is perpetuated by turning a blind eye to the reality of the other section of South Asian workers thus also avoiding the embarrassing dichotomy of opportunity and exploitation in the high-tech industry.
While the South Asian community and the main-stream media have recognized the increasing number of South Asian engi¬neers in leading positions in the Silicon Valley, the very existence of thousands of South Asian workers at the bottom of the high-tech ladder has been suspiciously absent. Denying the existence of an entire sector of a community is an unhealthy practice unto itself, but if this denial continues, it could potentially be dangerous. Given the “Third World” reality which South Asian immigrants face on a daily basis in Silicon Valley shop floors, the South Asian communities must mature into an active ally of the broader immigrant labor movement if any change is to be expected.
The issue of community intervention becomes even more pressing given the anti-union history of the Valley. While most industries of such size have union representation to give workers a voice, Silicon Valley has put tremendous energy and resources into keeping the industry “union-free.” Having the foresight to see how a union could disrupt the patently unfair labor practices of his industry, Bob Noyce (the co-founder of Intel) claimed in his 1984 book entitled Silicon Valley Fever that, “Remaining nonunion is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business. This is a very high priority for management.” The industry obeyed this commandment religiously throughout the booming business expansions of the past two decades by implementing rapid response union busting campaigns to diffuse any energy that hinted of worker organizing. Without union protection or a community support network, a worker such as Jivan in Silicon Valley is left in a battle for workplace justice that pits himself alone against an entire industrial complex fully stocked with money, political clout, and effective media campaigns. The romantic struggle of the underdog loses its charm when one realizes the odds stacked against the individual worker and the silence of one’s community on this issue.
The rising number of South Asians in the manufacturing sector of Silicon Valley is a wake-up call to the collective South Asian American consciousness. We must focus on our well-being in the workplace because we are being focused upon. Particular energy must be concentrated on bridging the gap between labor and community organizing. They are, as reflection shows us, manifestations of the same struggle. This becomes even more apparent when industries, such as those in Silicon Valley, target and sacrifice specific ethnic groups to maintain astronomical and unshared fortunes.
The overlap of the South Asian community and high-tech industry is undeniable; they are apparently linked in their direction and destiny. The question then is what values the South Asian community will express, as it is rapidly becoming a formative architect of the high-tech engine of the next millennium? The question is a humble one, and is intended only to begin a dialog. Our answer, whenever it comes, will have historical implications on the social and economic well being of Silicon Valley’s invisible workforce.