Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Silicon Valley Injured Workers Unite

Why We Are Building a Global Movement to Challenge the Chip

Ted Smith




For more than four decades, people in Silicon Valley

in California, United States, have known that the manu-

facture of computer chips requires many toxic chemicals

and that workers have been getting sick from exposure

to those chemicals. At the same time, we’ve also known

that the electronics industry has built a ‘fi re wall’ against

unions and resisted efforts by workers to organize to pro-

tect their health, wages and working conditions. Lessons

learned in Silicon Valley need to be shared throughout

Asia since electronics manufacturing is now centred

there. Here are some key examples:

1. The right-to-know is essential! Information is

the best defense!

In Silicon Valley, as in Asia, electronics production

workers were not informed about the toxic hazards for

themselves and their families and since many were mi-

grant workers from rural areas, they had no way of know-

ing about these hazards. Early efforts in Silicon Valley

included documenting the chemical hazards, informing

workers through publications and a telephone ‘hotline’,

organizing victims into a support group called ‘Injured

Workers United’, and providing medical and legal sup-

port for affected workers. While electronics executives

were uniformly hostile to unions (people who tried

to organize unions were often fired and/or harassed),

organizing to protect workers’ health was more diffi cult

to suppress. While industry executives could complain

about the evils of unions, they found it more difficult to

discredit people coming together to organize for safer

working conditions.

2. The right to say no – The Campaign to end the

miscarriage of justice3

The growing awareness that toxic chemicals were

causing reproductive harm in the community gave rise to

a demand for additional health studies to assess the extent

of miscarriages and birth defects for electronics workers.

Three separate epidemiological studies all demonstrated

a high rate of miscarriages amongst semiconductor work-

ers, leading to the demand to ban the use of glycol ethers

and other reproductive toxins. Women began to demand

that they be provided a safe work place, particularly when

they were pregnant or contemplating pregnancy.

3. The right to act – Taking workers concerns

directly to the Semiconductor Industry

In 2002, after years of organizing in Silicon Valley

and other high-tech centres in the US, we organized an

international gathering to bring together people from

other parts of the world to share stories and strategies

and to form a common agenda. This is where we formed

the International Campaign for Responsible Technology

(ICRT).4 We were all energized to learn that we had much

in common and shared similar goals. We also realized

that we were facing the same opposition and denial

from industry offi cials who ignored and minimized the

concerns that we were witnessing. We decided to take

our unifi ed message directly to the source of the problem

– to the headquarters of the Semiconductor Industry As-

sociation (SIA), which is the trade association that acts

as the global lobby for the industry. We showed up as a

large group and confronted George Scalise, President of

the SIA, and made sure that he listened to the fi rst-hand

accounts from people from all around the world who

were suffering from cancer, birth defects, and abuses of

workers’ rights. We demanded that the industry protect

its workers wherever they are – in the US, Scotland, Tai-

wan, China, etc. But the industry is still a long way from

providing a safe workplace where workers can survive

with dignity and justice. These demands still need to be

acted upon all around.

4. Moving from reaction to precaution – why we

need to get ahead of the curve

One of the most difficult challenges of dealing

with the electronics industry is that it is both extremely

powerful and changes very rapidly. In little more than a

single generation, it has become one of the most domi-

nant economic engines on the planet and has developed

a wide variety of products that have become essential

to communications, defense as well as the consumer

economy. No wonder that governments compete for new

high-tech development and are uninterested in regulating

the ‘golden goose’ that sees itself as the gateway to the

future. Moreover, since it is still governed by ‘Moore’s

law’ (which proclaims that every 18 months each new

generation of technology will be twice as fast, twice as

small and twice as cheap),5 the industry changes so rap-

idly that by the time you fi gure out what the main chal-

lenges or hazards are, the technology has moved on to the

next generation and is creating new problems even before

the older ones have been understood or addressed.

If ever there was a poster child for the need for the

precautionary principle, the electronics industry presents

itself as Exhibit A! If we spend all of our effort trying to

clean up the messes created yesterday, we will never get

ahead of the curve. Likewise, if we always have to wait

for the ‘body count’ we will continue to be overwhelmed

by too many funerals. We need to develop better ways to

screen new materials before they are introduced into the

workplace and we need to establish increased bargaining

power to make sure that management listens to the con-

cerns of the workers rather than just give lip service.

to this most powerful industry. That’s why

it is essential that we build stronger links between our

various networks, especially the newly renamed (see Box,

p. 40) Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and

Environmental Victims (ANROEV),8 the European Work

Hazards Network (EWHN)9 and the National Council on

Occupational Safety and Health (COSH)10 in the U.S.

5. Forming worker-community-environmental

coalitions is necessary.

Early organizing efforts to expose the toxic underside

of electronics production in Silicon Valley was essential

in building awareness and piercing the ‘clean industry’

mythology, but it was the linkage to community and

environmental pollution that really got people mobilized

to make the industry more accountable. Even when the

local media began to cover the growing occupational ill-

nesses, most people still ignored it if they weren’t directly

and personally affected. But when the toxic chemicals

leaked into our groundwater (which is our drinking wa-

ter supply) and residents started giving birth to babies

with serious birth defects, the residents came together

to demand that the industry change its practices. And

often it was the workers in the lead, who were suffering

from ‘double exposure’ both on the job as well as in

the community. That’s when we started passing laws to

provide greater protections and established

the legal right-to-know about which toxic

chemicals were being used in which fac-

tory. We made the point that there was no

difference between occupational health

and environmental health – that people

were getting sick from exposure to the

same toxic chemicals, whether it was in

the workplace or in the community. It was

the combined power of the broad coalition

that was able to generate enough people

power to make changes.

Now that the industry has become

truly global, we need to further develop

our people’s networks to also become

truly global. More than ever, it’s true that

an injury to one is an injury to all – that’s

why the cancer cluster at Samsung affects

us all; and that’s why the rash of suicides at

Foxconn7 is a tragedy for all of us. And it is

only through our combined resources and

common strategies that we stand a chance

to bring accountability and sustainability

to this most powerful industry. That’s why

it is essential that we build stronger links between our

various networks, especially the newly renamed (see Box,

p. 40) Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and

Environmental Victims (ANROEV),8 the European Work

Hazards Network (EWHN)9 and the National Council on

Occupational Safety and Health (COSH)10 in the U.S.


See Eds. Ted Smith, David A. Sonnenfeld, David Naguib

Pellow, and Leslie A. Byster, Challenging the Chip:

Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global

Electronics Industry, Philadelphia: Temple University

Press, 2006.


http://cdn.calisphere.org/data/13030/hf/kt2b69r7hf/fi les/












http://www.coshnetwork.org/sites/default/fi les/favicon.jpg

A delegation from the founding conference of International Campaign for Responsible

Technology in November 2002, visiting the National Semiconductor factory in Santa Clara,

California. Photo: Ted Smith


See Eds. Ted Smith, David A. Sonnenfeld, David Naguib

Pellow, and Leslie A. Byster, Challenging the Chip:

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