11. Maquiladoras In Silicon Valley

Source: THE NATION, Date: 4/19/93, Title: "Silicon Valley Sweatshops: High Tech's Dirty Little Secret," Author: Elizabeth Kadetsky

SSU Censored Researcher: Jesse Boggs

SYNOPSIS: In two high-profile visits to Silicon Valley, California's high-tech "paradise," President Bill Clinton has praised that industry as a model for America's economic future, which "will move America forward to a stronger economy, a cleaner environment and technological leadership."

Unfortunately, it is a model with some poor-fitting and missing parts. In reality, Silicon Valley is home to some of the nation's dirtiest, most dangerous jobs -- a fact that has been virtually buried in the rush to embrace our technological future.

The people who work on the assembly lines, making printed circuit boards and other electronic components for companies like IBM and Digital Microwave Corporation, earn about six dollars per hour, have no health benefits, and routinely have to handle highly toxic substances without even the most rudimentary safety equipment, such as gloves and goggles.

If they protest their conditions, as Joselito Munoz did last October, they are fired. More than 60 percent of the 80,000-plus workers in this environment are female, and 70 percent of them are Asian or Latino.

A large part of the problem is that these workers aren't actually employed by major companies like IBM or Digital Microwave. Instead, they work for small components contractors like Versatronex, the company that fired Joselito Munoz. The week after Munoz was fired, 85 of his fellow workers walked out in protest and called the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union. Within a few months, the National Labor Relations Board ordered Versatronex to recognize the union. The company's response was to file for bankruptcy and shut down its Sunnyvale plant. The message was not lost on other workers.

This is not an atypical scenario. The big Fortune 500 dynamos of Silicon Valley, whose employees enjoy flextime, elder and child care, sabbaticals, paternal leave, profit-sharing, employee swimming pools, and fitness centers, benefit enormously from this system of Maquiladora-like subcontractors who can supply them with cheap parts because their wages and standards are so low.

When approached about the issue, these companies take a "hands-off" attitude. When asked about conditions at companies like Versatronex, the American Electronic Association's "director of workforce excellence" responded, "We try to build consensus and not pick issues that are divisive. So we don't have any policy statement on it."

President Clinton, meanwhile, has laid out a plan for subsidies to small business and emerging technologies that promises government windfalls to Silicon Valley -- and appears destined to reinforce existing conditions.

In the words of University of California economist Marshall Pomer, "Insofar as he allows Silicon Valley's desperate immigrants to work in terrible conditions with no chance of advancement and no chance of collecting disability, Clinton is furthering the Reagan agenda."

COMMENTS: Investigative author Elizabeth Kadetsky, who wrote about the Silicon Valley sweatshops for The Nation, pointed out the critical need for local coverage of issues that also have a national impact.

Pointing out how the Silicon Valley has benefited enormously from its high-tech image, Kadetsky notes that "Even local newspapers have a tremendous stake in preserving Central California's relatively newfound national prominence. Twenty years ago a job at the San Jose Mercury News would never have landed reporter or editor work on a top metropolitan newspaper; today and thanks expressly to high tech, the Mercury itself is one of those coveted journalistic venues.

"As in many company towns, in Silicon Valley there is a feeling of living with a Big Lie -- read even the alternative press and you'll learn a lot about big boss's paternalism and benevolence, but nothing of his shortcomings. With boomtown boosterism so ingrained in the local psyche, it's not surprising few have been willing to rip the curtain from this Emerald City. And without the local press's lead, national news has nothing to steal.

"My piece went the way of many Nation stories: The New York Times ran an article within the month that was essentially a rip-off of mine -- down to passages extremely reminiscent of my own wording of course never citing me or The Nation. Then, surprise, the Times dropped the story, failing to mention conditions for Silicon Valley's immigrant workers and the persistence of grassroots labor organizing in the paper's myriad encomia on Clinton's visits and other flirtations with Silicon Valley's Republican patrons.

"I believe negligence rather than occult machinations explains the mainstream press's blithe omission of stories on immigrant labor. Like many Americans, a lot of journalists and editors are skeptical of unions and still don't under-stand the difference between a don from the Carpenters Union going to jail and a barrio Chicano going out to speak Spanish with workers who could well be his or her relations. The increasingly professionalized and educated journalism establishment goes to parties where they drink white wine with other professionals. In Silicon Valley at least, they come to idealize the fancy cars and beautiful homes of high-tech's most successful entrepreneurs. The janitor from Acapulco who had a miscarriage while breathing toxic cleanser fumes is just not someone a $50,000-a-year editor cares to understand."

Nonetheless, Kadetsky said she feels that coverage of immigrants is improving and cited several articles that recently appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.