Increasingly, high-tech companies have become the new sweatshop. Poor work conditions and wage violations spurred the creation of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) in1982. SVTC alleged that leaking underground storage tanks in high-tech facilities have affected air pollution and conditions for people working in the assembly process and manufacturing and cleaning rooms.
It really hasnt happened before in history, Ted Smith, executive director of SVTC says. The huge number of chemicals and multiple exposures have
[made] workers sick [with a] whole range of problems miscarriages, children with birth defects, to developing cancer on the job.
There have been a number of civil and private lawsuits. Some address alleged labor violations against Asian immigrant women who do electronic assembly work at the factories and in their homes. Many of these workers earned piece rates, which do not add up to minimum or overtime wages.
The Mao v. Top Line Electronics (Dec. 1999) was the first ever lawsuit in Silicon Valley that challenged the practice of homework in the electronic manufacturing industry. The workers who filed the suit claimed that they were exposed to noxious fumes and chemicals resulting in long-term health problems. The Asian Law Caucus (ALC) challenged the factorys practices on behalf of a Cambodian American immigrant.
ALC, in partnership with Equal Rights Advocates, South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, and Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety, helped organize the interim hearing on Economic Insecurity in Silicon Valley before the California Senate Committee on Industrial Relations. The hearing looked at working conditions for pieceworkers and contingent laborers in the Valley and made recommendations. ALC and its partners are currently doing follow-up work on legislative advocacy.
There are a lot of underpaid people [who] work under difficult and dangerous conditions, Smith says. Some do assembly work or solder components to a circuit board using heat process to create bonds that attach components to the circuit boards.
"It could be that youre breathing fumes and putting your hands in toxic chemicals, working on machines, changing chemicals and dumping the waste chemicals, Smith says.
VTC helped to pass laws preventing unsafe conditions. They published reports that documented hazards, created a Web site on hazards, and established a network of international campaigns for responsible technology. SVTC passed a hazardous material ordi¡ance in 1983 and a toxic gas ordinance in 1990, in the cities of Santa Clara County, which have been incorporated into federal hazardous materials legislation.
Electronics manufacturing has become extraordinarily dependent on sub-contractors and all the big companies rely on them, Smith says. Its difficult to keep track of all the things that go on in all the places it goes on because theres so many subcontractors.
Large companies, such as IBM, deal with as many as 10,000 subcontractors all around the world, Smith says, adding that often the working conditions are poor and the wages are low.
He adds: Most of the assembly work is done by immigrant women of color, usually from Asia or Central or South America. The goal of this organization is to organize people in the community to protect themselves from the impact of high-tech development.