Silicon Valley technology companies were absent from a roundtable meeting with contracted employees discussing equity, fair pay and workers’ rights in Santa Clara last week.
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, hosted the roundtable July 2 to amplify a burgeoning discussion on workers’ rights in the technology industry’s low-wage service sector, which includes shuttle bus drivers, janitors and cafeteria workers.
Those employees have fallen by the wayside amid a boom of wealth creation in Silicon Valley, seeing stagnating wages, dismal work environments and a lack of respect from higher-ups, workers said at the roundtable.
“Silicon Valley is essentially dysfunctional,” said Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council.
Field pointed to data indicating one-third of Bay Area households do not earn enough to be self-sufficient, with the same holding true for 50 percent of Hispanic households.
“The business model of tech in this community is the essence of the problem,” he said. “Tech creates poverty-wage jobs while at the same time dramatically increasing the cost of housing.”
Union workers who spoke at the roundtable asked, foremost, for respect from their employers and higher wages.
“We all want to be equal, we don’t want to be harassed or feel pressure doing our job,” said Rosie Silva, a bus operator who described drivers sleeping in their buses because they don’t have proper facilities to take breaks. She declined to say which company she works for.
Following a panel discussion with union representatives and nonprofit leaders, Khanna questioned why technology companies were not present despite his office making efforts to invite them.
He noted that the conversation had nuance — several applauded Facebook’s efforts to increase wages for contractors, for example — but tech companies may still feel under attack.
They’ve come under fire repeatedly in the last several years for privacy abuses, underpaying contract workers, mishandling of employee complaints over sexual harassment, and increasing gentrification in areas of large tech “campuses.”
After receiving pressure from activists and city leaders, the companies have begun making large commitments to local neighborhoods. Google said last month that it will pledge $1 billion toward building housing in the Bay Area, but workers at the panel maintained that these community benefit packages need to include the company’s own workers.
Khanna and others said the companies are accessible and open in private meetings, but may shy away from public gatherings where media are present.
“I think that (tech companies) do really want to do the right thing for the nation and the world … but it’s making sure that they are continuing to prioritize (local communities),” Khanna said.
He said he is working on legislation with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to strengthen workers’ rights and allow them to bargain with parent companies, instead of only the contracting company.
“There’s so many things tugging at (tech companies’) time … and their obligation to the communities in which they live has to be high on their radar,” Khanna said. “I think that there is a possibility for tech to really build alliances here.”