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Silicon Valley’s Worst-Kept Secret

An independent documentary exposes the new economy’s dirtiest little secrets: the displacement of minority communities and the mistreatment of temporary employees working to build a valley they cannot afford.

The most shocking revelation of Secrets of Silicon Valley is not that many temporary workers who make $6.50 an hour assembling Hewlett-Packard printers drive 100 miles to work each day because they can’t find affordable housing in the valley. Nor is it that a conference center and hotel have displaced dozens of locally owned stores and uprooted a vulnerable minority community in the Whisky Gulch of East Palo Alto, the Bay Area’s poorest town.

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The most appalling thing about Secrets of Silicon Valley is that these revelations still alarm and outrage people living and working in the new economy.

Temporary workers do not constitute a hidden workforce, an underground army shielded from the public view. Who do you think packs Highway 680 South to San Jose each morning at 7 AM? Who do you think packaged the brand-new PC that Santa left under the tree? And who do you think used to live south of Market before all the dotcoms barged in?

Likewise, the disintegration of ethnic communities in Silicon Valley has been neither sudden nor unforeseen. The arrival of Home Depot on East Bayshore Road followed countless chain-store encroachments before it. The minority communities of East Palo Alto, East San Jose, and Milpitas have faced certain devastation for more than a decade; now those neighborhoods resemble little more than Silicon Valley parking lots. And anyone who drove down Highway 101 between 1990 and 2000 could see that transformation plain as day.

So why are so many members of the Information Age — inside and outside Silicon Valley — stunned when they hear the stories of Magda Escobar and Raj Jayadev, the two community activists featured in Secrets of Silicon Valley? The struggles of Escobar and Jayadev — to close the digital divide and to earn greater rights for temporary workers — raged through Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, Route 128, and countless other technology hubs through the 1990s. Every major news organization has covered this story, yet we still gasp when we learn that graduates of Silicon Valley high schools can’t read, write, or operate a computer. We still shake our heads in disbelief to hear that a majority of temporary employees suffer from workplace injuries that go undiagnosed and uncured.

“It’s interesting that people see, feel, and buy all these computers, printers, hardware, and software, but they do not think that real people make those things, that human beings physically construct them,” Jayadev says. “They must think our technology is sent down by some divine presence. It’s phenomenal to think there could be such a massive public misconception.”

When will we stop chastising and begin changing? That is the question posed by filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, who produced and directed the award-winning film Blacks and Jews before making Secrets of Silicon Valley. In their latest documentary, Snitow and Kaufman capture a year in the lives of Escobar and Jayadev — change agents working in separate, but related, sectors of northern California’s new economy.

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Escobar runs Plugged In, a community technology-access center located just across the freeway from the epicenter of Silicon Valley wealth and innovation: Palo Alto. She is working in the shadow of Hewlett-Packard, Netscape, and Intel to bring East Palo Alto’s mostly Latino and black youth up to speed on the technology surrounding them. Secrets of Silicon Valley chronicles Escobar’s journey from Plugged In’s store-front computer center to Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Challenge, an ultra-competitive, ultra-high-tech soapbox derby that pits venture capitalists, startup cowboys, and their egos against one another in the name of charity.

Making connections with high-ranking Silicon Valley leaders, Escobar touts Plugged In and its mission to participants and sponsors attending the Sand Hill Challenge, which raises money for Plugged In and Safe Rides, another local nonprofit. The Silicon Valley elite respond well, extending support and enthusiasm to Escobar at the event. But a few months later, when Plugged In’s home on University Avenue is leveled to build a new hotel and conference center, Escobar and her technology center are left to fend for themselves.

“Corporate involvement in this area is enlightened self-interest,” she says. “They understand this is a market to be captured, and they see Plugged In as an investment…. But is that marketing, or is that really philanthropy? What happens when Plugged In is no longer the sexy thing to fund?”

Considering the number of large, successful technology companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, the support that Plugged In receives from the business community is simply pitiful says Avram Miller, former vice president and director of business development at Intel.

As the film recounts the dark days of Plugged In — and its struggle to secure a new location, funding, and corporate sponsorship — it also delves into the story of Raj Jayadev, a 24-year-old Manpower employee assigned to Hewlett-Packard’s printer-assembly plant. Jayadev packs printer boxes, snaps components into place, and hustles to meet daily quotas during the height of the Internet frenzy. And then Jayadev notices some money missing from his first Manpower paycheck. He asks around and learns that accounting errors are common and that rectified payments are slow to arrive.

Jayadev starts a petition protesting the faulty payroll calculations and late payments, and within two days, gathers signatures from 90% of his coworkers. After one week, he leads a delegation to Manpower offices, where he confronts the management with unresolved paycheck problems. Jayadev successfully collects back pay for himself and his colleagues, but his work has only begun.

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“I found out my second week that we have more than double the industry standard of workplace injuries,” Jayadev says of his job at Hewlett-Packard. “Yet I don’t know one person who is doing a health-care policy through Manpower, because it’s too costly. How can there exist such an unfair, oppressive work predicament without a union even looking?”

Jayadev becomes Manpower’s worst nightmare as he polls workers for Manufacturing Services Limited, an HP contract manufacturer, about the harmful effects of chemicals used in the plant and finds that more than half of them have developed respiratory problems while working there. Jayadev petitions Manpower and MSL to recognize the health threats facing its 900 temporary employees, some of whom have worked for the company for four or five years.

Jayadev was fired for fomenting discontent at Hewlett-Packard.

Secrets of Silicon Valley goes on to chart Jayadev’s rise to fame as an activist for temporary workers and Plugged In’s remarkable triumph over apathy and greed. But the story does not end with Escobar and Jayadev persisting despite setbacks, exposing Silicon Valley’s ugly underbelly against all odds. Judging from the film’s contrasting snapshots of Silicon Valley and its disparate populations, this story will not end anytime soon. Stay tuned.

“I actually think there’s nothing new about this new economy,” Jayadev says. “Without low-cost manual labor, how could you have the new economy? The temp economy is extremely secretive. These exploits have to remain hidden, because the truth would completely burst this all-boats-floating belief that there is affluence for everybody. I want the secret of Silicon Valley absolutely exploded. I want that myth destroyed, because it pisses me off every damn day.”

Anni Layne (alayne@fastcompany.com) is the fastcompany.com senior Web editor. Secrets of Silicon Valley is playing in select theaters. To learn more, visit the movie online.

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