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Fall/ Winter 2001

High-Tech Home Workers

by Karina Ioffee

 

Slaving away at a factory for a salary below the minimum wage seems something straight out of Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle." But for many immigrants living in Silicon Valley, it’s an everyday reality. Working 10 to 12 hours a day at the electronics companies dotting this part of Northern California, they are a crucial component of an industry where every pause means lost money.They work robotically around the clock, sometimes not stopping even after they return home. It’s a hidden population, comprised of mostly Southeast Asian immigrants, many of whom do not speak English nor have much knowledge of their rights.

They do everything from soldering wires to assembling motherboards, often using dangerous chemicals in poorly ventilated rooms and tools for which they have not been trained. The compensation? A per-piece rate that often equals less than the legal minimum wage. Yet many are suffering in silence, afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. For some, it’s an honor system, keeping unspoken promises to their bosses, who gave them employment in the first place.

“It was awkward for me to complain,” says Soonja Chun, “because the boss was also Korean.” Chun spent seven years fitting circuit boards for several Silicon Valley companies, but says she was often not paid for overtime. Although she started suffering from chronic back and neck ache and stiffness in her fingers, she kept quiet until she could no longer bear the pain. “It’s better to quit than say anything,” she says.

Secrecy is a big part of what makes homework so difficult to abolish. Despite campaigns to educate workers and encourage them to speak out against their employers, few choose to come forward and denounce the abuses, which in addition to dangerous conditions include no overtime pay.

“It’s complicated,” says Doris Ng, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based non-profit law office that has worked extensively on the issue. “They’re grateful for the work because it provides for their families — an income they would otherwise not have. But they are also being exploited.”

A 1999 investigation spurred by a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News found at least twelve contract manufacturers in the Silicon Valley sending work home. Three of these are now out of business, while the rest have promised to not make use of homeworkers and have paid some $105,000 in back wages. Two, PULNix, a camera manufacturer, and Viko Technology, Inc, a circuit board manufacturer, were also cited for violations of child-labor laws. Another, San Jose-based TopLine Electronics, even went as far as signing an injunction after being sued by an ex-employee who claimed the company had failed to pay overtime. “It was unprecedented decision in this area of labor law,” said Ng of Equal Rights Advocates, one of the groups who participated in the suit.

But how long the industry’s promise to respect the law will hold is another matter.

Competition is stiff and with the downturn of the economy, employers are looking to cut corners wherever they can. Today, only nine companies in all of California are licensed to engage in homework, although officials suspect the real number participating is much higher.

“There’s no way of knowing just how many companies are out there [who participate in homework],” said Dean Fryer, spokesman for the California Industrial Relations Board.
“There are many types of employers. Some are law-abiding and others are unscrupulous and will continue doing this type of work.”

Although the use of homeworkers is not allowed for food and drink preparation or apparel and toy assembling, no similar restrictions exist for electronic assembly, a job many consider far more dangerous. The only thing the US Labor Code makes a reference to is in cases of “clear health and safety hazards” — which have yet to be defined. “Changing the law takes time,” says Young Shin, director of Asian Immigrant Woman Advocates (AIWA), a local group working on abuses in both the garment and electronics industry.

Others say that the magnitude of the problem has been reduced by the move of a large part of the industry to the Third World. “They (labor officials) think that because production for many companies is done overseas, it’s not a problem here,” says Hina Shah, attorney at Asian Law Caucus, a group dedicated to promoting the rights for Asian-Americans.

Although both state and federal investigators have finished their work, many say they doubt that the practice is over. “We’re not hearing too much about the continuation of homework right now,” says Doris Ng, of Equal Rights Advocates. “And that’s not surprising because the same thing happened in 1980 (after another series of articles ran in the Mercury News). After all that publicity, a lot of companies did take a look and perhaps scaled back.”

But Ng attributes today's relative calm more to the downturn of the economy than any concrete changes. “As soon as the demand is up, we’ll see it again,” she says.

At this point, the future looks far from optimistic, with labor officials admitting that instances of homeworker abuse are impossible to find unless workers themselves come forward. But until they’re terminated or leave the job voluntarily, what goes on inside both factories and worker’s homes will remain a secret. “There is a whole population that we don’t know about and won’t, unless there are leads,” says Fryer. “But without names, we cannot do anything.”

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© 2001-2002 El Andar Magazine

 

Silicon Shame Series

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Week 2
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High-Tech Home Workers
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Week 3
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On Questionable Grounds: The Brownfields Real Estate Boom
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