March 1995---Soc/Anth 9: Professor Diaz-Barriga
Swarthmore College

More Discriminatory Employment Practices: Latinas and Microelectronics

The Computer Revolution of the 20th century which has introduced new technologies promising increased efficiency and production unfortunately has not yielded benefits to all members of American society. Minority women have long been the victim of employment discrimination and the technological industries have not strayed from these practices. As exemplified by the Silicon Valley of California, Latino women in the U.S. have been recruited as low-wage non-skilled workers to fulfill the increasing demands of microelectronics, the foundation of technological industries (computers, communication and aerospace equipment, electronic components). Employers looking for a flexible pool of cheap and ready labor turn to the hungry latino communities to satisfy their needs. Homework, a strategy used in microelectronics to cut production costs, ships work to homesites without granting women any benefits or job security and further undermines unionizing efforts. While the concept of technological progress misleads the masses to associations with employment progress, the reality is that technological industries are in actuality widening the racist and sexist gap between skilled and unskilled laborers.

Silicon Valley: Race and Gender Discrimination
California's Santa Clara County was named "Silicon Valley" because of its prominent participation in electronic component production which originated in the 1950s. Employing 200,000 people directly and indirectly involved in the manufacturing process, Silicon Valley is the world's greatest manufacturer of silicon. Success in the highly-competitive technological industries demands cutting manufacturing costs by a number of means. One method is the exportation of labor to countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, and Indonesia where labor costs are drastically lower than in the United States while another method is to move to low-wage, often minority concentrated, areas in the U.S. The community's desperation for work helps eliminate the threat of unionization that the industry might face if its discriminatory employment practices, low wages, and poor work conditions were to become exposed.

The Silicon Valley's labor force is drastically divided between skilled and unskilled laborers, with women concentrated in production and men in research and management positions. Nearly half of the jobs in the plants are low-skill assemblage jobs, roughly 85% of which are held by women, with more than half assigned to minority women, especially Latinas and Asians. "While women in general were concentrated in the clerical and assembler categories, minority women registered extreme isolation at the occupational bottom."

In 1977 assemblers were earning approximately 47% of an engineer's income. In addition to these huge disparities between the professionals (males) and the clerical and assemblage workers (females) wages, the lower skilled employees are subject to much less job security and oftentimes dangerous working conditions. In the initial stage, silicon wafers are prepared as integrated electronic circuits through a complex process of crystallization, gas diffusion, electroplating, and acid washing. During this process workers are subjected to cleaning ovens and numerous corrosive materials. The work is notoriously hazardous, but workers are not provided with much protection, which employers allege can be quite expensive.

Common complaints from workers exposed to these conditions include headaches, acid burns, and nausea. The illness rates are four times the average for manufacturing and the long term effects are still not identified. "Some ailments are so new that occupational health experts have been unable to keep up with the problems, much less anticipate potential bodily threats." ( ) Workers have said that they have been fired for trying to get protective legislation enforced for better working conditions.

Job security is another problem which faces Latino women in the microelectronics sector. Due to the developmentmental nature of technological industries, frequent changes in production yield periods of upgrading during which there is less demand for labor. It is during these periods as well as during downturns in the market that employers must be capable of releasing assemblers. Their lack of unions strips the Latina workers of any protection from these practices.

Another stategy utilized to cut production costs is the exportation of work to the home, much like the practices of the garment industry. Many latino women who are the primary care providers for their children find this option appealing as they save the time and money involved in commuting, are free from the hierarchical structure of the work environment, and have control over their schedule while providing care for their children at home. However, homework is not without its disadvantages as women are working without benefits, Social Security, Workers' Compensation, while exposing their children and family to toxic elements. Women earning barely a minimum wage income must foot the costs of electricity, light, and heat expended in the work process in addition to the entry fee of $250 for "basic materials" with no guarantee of economic security.

Organizing in the Valley
Organizing Latina workers in the Silicon Valley is extremely difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, as with any group of people desperate for work, they are less likely to challenge their employers, especially when they are low-skilled, highly replaceable workers in a flooded labor market. The Silicon Valley's transfer of much of its employment opportunities overseas was in response to pressures that constrained the labor supply and threatened to increase wages. It is also a possible option to transfer production to states like Arizona, Idaho, and others with anti-union laws. There have been instances where companies have simply shut down when workers organized.

Some organizational campaigns have been successful and must echoed by Latina assemblers. The 'janitors' union went to the "name" company, Apple, demanding that they take responsibility for the conditions of the workers employed by their subcontractors. Hewlett-Packard, seeing the threat Apple faced of gaining a negative image in the public's eye, followed shortly afterwards, signing on their janitors.

The key to organizing Latinas, minorities and other workers in the Silicon Valley seems to lie in pressuring the "name" companies with threats of bad publicity. As workers come from numerous ethnic backgrounds, the largest being Latinos and Asians, it is important to organize independently (through the use of ethnic speakers) as well as colletively to establish unity and common goals. Latinas must demand better working conditions, fair wages, and the opportunity to move up the occupational hierarchy by means of TRAINING. Another goal is to introduce computer science and technology to minorities, and the communities as a whole, early in their lives. These are the first steps that must be taken to force the Silicon Valley and such technological industries to acknowledge--and reform--the unfair practices and inhumane conditions to which they have been subjecting their workers.

The increasing role of automation in our society, and especially in our workplaces, will apparently not be uniformly beneficial to everyone. The existing discriminatory employment practices which are part of our society today will only be exaggerated by the introduction of, and the increasing emphasis, on technology. The huge gap between skilled and unskilled workers, which also corresponds to gender and race, will only continue to widen if appropriate steps are not taken promptly. The introduction of legislature fighting for the rights of the lower level (Latina) workers is critical to this campaign. Unionizing is important, but not always possible when workers are easily replaceable and desperate and industries are determined. The government must act on the local and federal level to introduce policies regarding computer education, training programs, and informing the people of the injustices of these industries. But until then, workers must cooperate and form support groups for themselves and their family. They must organize and pressure "name" companies and inform the society around them of their mistreatment. Hopefully this problem will be acknowledged soon as the study of computer science and the social implications of computing technologies are becoming more popular and serious disciplines.


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