The Depths of Silicon Valley
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Where you’re from, where you’re at

As I got to know people and shared life stories with some of the more than 700 Manpower temp workers at HP, I found that most folks were new. New to the country, to the city, or at least to the plant and this work. For some, this meant having moved from Los Angeles or another California city to the booming Valley, where, according to word of mouth and relatives, jobs were opening up every day. For others, it was a move from politically torn homelands like Guatemala and Ethiopia.

But now housing costs in Silicon Valley are soaring (even faster than wages are falling). Some work in Silicon Valley but live as far as 100 miles away. Patrick, an African-American father of two, revealed this experience in his traveled and tired face. Our shift started at 6 a.m. He left Stockton at 3 a.m. to beat the traffic of similar commuters. I was amazed that there was a 4 a.m. rush hour. Patrick arrived at the plant around 4:30 and napped for an hour. Then he worked until 2:30 p.m., clocked out, got some coffee for the road, and took off back to Stockton. He usually felt like he couldn’t make it without dozing off, so he pulled over somewhere near Gilroy for a few minutes of rest before the home stretch. He arrived around dinnertime—if traffic took it easy on him.

Esther, a veteran worker on my line, assembled Hewlett Packard calculators in a plant in Cupertino from 1974 to 1977. I asked her what major changes she saw during those transformative years. She said she was most struck by all the new shades of brown: Islanders, East Asians, South Asians, and Africans redefined the workforce and the culture of her plant, as well as Santa Clara County. She hadn’t seen much change in the work: the same assembly production, same hours, and same pay.

"Same pay?" I asked.

"Yah. I was pulling in about the same amount per week that I am now. Around $1,000 a month, except back then we had benefits, and HP would hire you permanent or let you go after ninety days."

The Valley’s callousness intensified in the stories as they approached the present. An African-American woman, Barbara, had an unstated (but unanimously understood) leadership role on the line. She had worked at HP for nine years and seven months, initially drawn by its reputation of having good work standards ($16.25 an hour, full benefits, and bonuses). She planned to stay until she completed a full ten years—to be eligible for retirement benefits. Five months before her decade was up, HP decided to move the plant out of the Bay Area to Roseville (for cheaper labor), taking her retirement and job with them. The only jobs she has found since then are of the temporary variety, as transitory as one-night stands—gone the second after one feels comfortable.

Meeting people

Meeting people was pretty hard at first. Even if it had been possible to take a moment away from the task at hand, no one on the line was supposed to talk. At the beginning of my second week, Robert was describing his weekend—and our line supervisor, Ana, moved him to another part of the line. Scolded. No one, including Robert, complained; he just gave a displeased "alright" and followed Ana to a new location on the line.

During breaks and lunch, people usually sat according to ethnic group so they could speak their native tongues. Yet I couldn’t speak the major native tongue (Hindi) of my ethnic group (Indian). The first week, I sat blankly next to some South Asians who would smile at me graciously now and then. This changed when I shared my mother’s food with them during lunch. Her cooking, apparently, was a lot more authentically Indian than I was. We quickly assumed the roles of me as "beta" (young boy) and them as my honorary aunties and uncles, with all the resulting rights and responsibilities. Every conversation was capped with the kind and prodding advice to leave "this place." "Beta, you are young. This," they would say, looking around disgustedly, "is no kind of life. You should go to school, then get a good job. This is low pay, no benefits, not good." Always a special affinity for math and science. "You should learn computer science." I would tell them I had done some schooling, and that I would go back later.

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