Hi-tech underbelly

In the sweat shops of Silicon Valley, immigrant dreams are shattered.

"Hurry up Line 1! You are not here to talk, you are here to work! GEE-VAAN WHAT'S THE HOLD UP?!" The supervisor's words always carried a certain violence, intended to elicit immediate obedience, the way a prison guard would use a night_stick. Jivan had only been at the plant for a few months, but had grown accustomed to the daily harassment by the supervisor. So, in response to the harangue, he went back to stocking the conveyer belt with printers, but not before saying, "You know, in India workers would not stand for this treatment."

Jivan and I had taken a minute's rest from the back-breaking work to talk about our lives outside the plant. It was a minute we thought was well-deserved. Our line had already met its daily quota of 846 components, and yet the reward was a humiliating scolding. It was the end of another monotonous and dehumanising day on a Silicon Valley assembly line.

Jivan had come to the US less than a year ago from Kerala, where he had run a metal shop. Just as my parents did over 30 years ago, he came to America so that he could provide better education to his children, and has plans to return once his two boys finish school. But in the highly volatile and unstable labour market of what is being touted as the 'new economy', Jivan finds himself struggling just to stay afloat in a job that has remained constant in the Valley for the past two decades: low-wage electronics assembly.

Hi-tech ghetto
In the Valley, low-wage assembly and manufacturing has been the not-much-talked-about anchor of technological and economic growth. This labour niche at the bottom of the rung has been created and reserved for immigrant workers of colour, and this hidden workforce is subject to work in physically and mentally gruelling circumstances, all for sub-livable compensation. The irony is stark, as this labour constitutes the base of one of the most prolific profit-generating industries in modern times, with its workstation located in one of the world's most powerful financial hubs.

There is this popular presumption about the Information Age, that the technology is produced by some sort of divine intervention requiring no actual Industrial Age-type of assembling or manufacturing. Yet the fact is that every computer, printer, and other piece of technological wizardry has to be birthed in some inglorious assembly-line production site.

Indeed, electronics production requires so much labour that the high-tech industry employs one out of every five wage earners in the Valley. There are thus over 200,000 people labouring in the Valley's manufacturing sector, 70 percent of whom are Asian ( a growing percentage of which is South Asian). Contrary to the attention-grabbing 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, abusive, and—shockingly—never seem to play danceable 70s disco music. The 'clean' reputation of the modern high-tech industry is riddled with some of the most archaic expressions of exploitation. The electronics manufacturing plants and their low-income neighbourhoods 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. And these studies have only taken into account less than two percent of the 80,000 industrial chemicals that are in use in these plants.

Chip orchard
While exploitation of the immigrant workforce is nothing new to California or Silicon Valley, the cancerous nature of the electronic industry's growth and economic "success" has never been more obvious to its growing low-wage workforce. Once known as the Valley of Hearts Delight for being the most productive orchard region in the United States, Silicon Valley's present profile as a high-tech location is rooted in its practice of using disposable immigrant workers as industrial fodder.

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 number of production orders by filling its chemically polluted semiconductor fabrication rooms and assembly lines with an array of hard-working hands of colour. The view of the diverse blue-collar workforce is distorted from the safe distance of the management's window. From that perspective, all that is seen is a blur of slightly varying shades of brown skin.

The worker demographic mirrors the immigration history of the area—the Latinos having been joined by men and women of Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, Ethiopian, and more recently, of South Asian origin. For the high-tech tycoons of the new economy, it is a set-up that offers all the advantages of low-cost Third World labour in the convenience and luxury of the United States. While the much-touted IIT-trained South Asian whiz-kids ride the top of the Silicon valley totem pole to multi-millionairedom, ironically, the electronic sweatshops are filling up fast with not-so-fortunate subcon-tinentals earning no more than USD 6-8 an hour in one of the most unaffordable places to live in the country, without job security, or health insurance.

Many immigrants start a job thinking of the workplace abuses as passing burdens of a transitional reality, which will end once a better job is found. But due to the paradoxical lack of "good assembly job", most temporary workers tend to be stuck at the same plant, at the same position and pay, for years. Temporary work thus becomes permanent.

Model mushrooms
The meteoric ascendance of a portion of South Asian engineers and business people into the Silicon Valley royalty, has been both a captivating and surprising tale of immigrant entrepreneurial stewardship. Captivating for the phenomenal amount of wealth that the South Asians have been able to corner, especially given that the bulk of South Asians (read mostly Indian) have established themselves only over the last two decades.

According to one study, Chinese and South Asian entrepreneurs notched up USD 16.8 billion in sales last year alone. The fact that there are over 20 publicly traded companies each with sales in the millions founded or run by Indians in Silicon Valley, seems to buttress the "model minority" paradigm which these immigrants earn for themselves and the US economy. This South Asian entrepreneurial class has even gone so far as to create high-tech industry associations like "The Indus Entrepreneur" to institutionalise their elite positioning and growing political weight.

The model minority myth is consequently allowed to perpetuate, more so because the reality of the rest of the South Asian American existence is given a blind eye, thereby also avoiding the exposure of an embarrassingly two-faced relationship of opportunity and exploitation with high-tech industry. The loud recognition of the top-dog South Asians in the Valley is accompanied by a strange silence about their cousins who toil at the other end of this high-tech food chain. Unhealthy in itself, this myopia needs to be corrected so that the worse-than-'Third World reality' of the sontinental immigrants on the assembly line be improved. Clearly, there is need for organising among the South Asian labour forces in the valley, one which would be an active ally of the broader-immigrant labour movement.

The issue of community intervention becomes even more pressing given the Valley's anti-union history. While most industries of size have union representation to rely upon as a voice for workers' rights, Silicon Valley has put tremendous energy and resources into keeping the industry "union-free". Having the guile to foresee how a union could disrupt the patently unfair labour practices of his industry, Bob Noyce (co-founder of Intel) writes in his 1984 book entitled Silicon Valley Fever that, "Remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had work rules that unionised companies have, we'd all go out of business. This is a very high priority for management."

The industry has religiously obeyed this commandment of the silicon guru throughout the booming business expansions of the past two decades. It has done this by implementing rapid-response union-busting campaigns to diffuse any effort that hinted at worker organising. 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 stocked with money, political clout, and incredibly effective media campaigns. The romantic struggle of the underdog loses its charm when viewed in the context of these unfair odds stacked against him/her.

"They (management) think we're mushrooms. They keep us in the dark and feed us shit," says Jivan. The rising number of South Asians in the manufacturing sector of Silicon Valley is an alert to animate the collective South Asian consciousness in North America. The focus has to be well-being in the workplace, and the separations that today exist between labour and community organisations must be done away with.As more South Asians join the underclass of North America, it is best to make common cause.

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Himal Southasian