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Silicon Valley Tech Can Do Better With Hourly Wages

  • The area leads the world in smartphones, chips and innovation. It can improve, though, in paying hourly wages to workers, Derecka Mehrens writes in an opinion essay.

When you think about it, most of us owe a debt of gratitude to Silicon Valley.

Own a smartphone? Enjoy watching movies on your tablet? Got a favorite app? Find yourself trolling social media sites?  Many of these devices and experiences are made possible by the tech giants that call Silicon Valley home.

Derecka Mehrens

The abilities of these companies to create, excite and innovate have brought in windfall profits each year – in the hundreds of billions of dollars in 2014 alone. They attract a highly-talented workforce from around the world to the San Francisco Bay Area and solidify the region’s standing as the preeminent place to work and raise a family.

That is – unless you are a low-wage worker at one of these tech campuses. Unless you’re one of the low-income persons (likely a person of color) who supports the operations at these technology companies by cleaning offices, preparing and serving food, guarding facilities and driving employee shuttles to and from work.

These workers are living hand to mouth, making barely enough to provide a decent living for their families.

The decision last month by Facebook to confer a $15 minimum wage, three weeks paid time off and $4,000 in support for new parents for its subcontracted workforce is an important step toward accepting corporate responsibility for all the workers of the supply chain.

More importantly, it pulls back the curtain on this invisible but vitally important component of our tech economy – the employees of the firms that contract with hi-tech corporations to provide the services on which they depend.

For these workers, profit sharing is a pipe dream. They’re more concerned with gaining basic health benefits and fair wages to support themselves and their families.

Silicon Valley Rising (SVR) is at the forefront of fighting for equity and justice for these men and women. A pact between faith leaders, community organizations, labor leaders and everyday residents, SVR seeks to advance a singular cause – improving the standard of living for the often “forgotten” workers and families in the Silicon Valley tech economy.

Its platform is committed to:

  1. raising wages and benefits for Silicon Valley workers;
  2. developing public policy solutions for the region’s affordable housing crisis, and;
  3. fostering corporate accountability for the treatment of contract tech workers.

For far too long, tech companies have either ignored or pushed back against demands that they do better and raise the standards for their lowest wage workers. Citing a lack of authority over their subcontractors, they allow a new form of segregation – occupational segregation – to emerge, as the gap between high-wage and low-wage workers widens.

Since SVR’s inception, there is movement to narrow the gap.

Recent actions by companies like Apple, Google and Facebook to raise the standard of living for their low-wage workers reflect an acknowledgement that every employee contributes to the company’s success – even those at the bottom of the chain.

What remains to be seen is how tech companies will monitor and enforce wage standards. There are tried and true systems for protecting workers’ rights, including collective bargaining. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Just as companies can give these raises, they also can take them away.

That’s why we must consider an additional enforcement (such as a third party) entity to ensure these standards are being enforced.

It’s time for other Silicon Valley tech companies to say “no” to occupational segregation and pay all their workers a fair and dignified wage.

The public can show its gratitude to Silicon Valley by firmly holding these companies accountable for the rights of all their workers. We can insist that corporate responsibility should not be limited to the Third World but also to employees on corporate campuses in California and the rest of of our nation.

Derecka Mehrens is executive director of Working Partnerships USA, which is based in San Jose, California. Working Partnerships USA calls itself a “community-labor organization.” It focuses on the economy and seeks to find solutions to inequality. It helps workers and communities of color. The top graphic is from SVR. Santa Clara County is one of the main regions of Silicon Valley.

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