Take that, Silicon Valley!

A new documentary follows two young activists on a crusade to expose the tech industry's labor woes.

Published May 1, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Poor new-economy man. He is already down for the count; he just can't understand where all those trillions in stock market wealth went. Now he's taking another swift kick in the groin: A new documentary portrays Silicon Valley as a place where corporations buy a shiny-happy, socially conscious image while treating their own workers like Third World day laborers.

"Secrets of Silicon Valley," by Berkeley, Calif., filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, is a muckraking movie about life on the other side of the digital divide. There's nothing like footage of workers toiling on an assembly line for $6.50 an hour to deflate once and for all the hype about how the Internet has changed everything.

The film juxtaposes the bombastic rhetoric of leading valley luminaries like venture capitalist John Doerr -- "Can I tell you a secret? It's not about money. It's about the future!" -- against the grim workplace realities of the grunts who actually put together the electronics equipment that companies like Hewlett-Packard sell. Behind the factory door, the documentary shows Silicon Valley to be a place where managers, who all just happen to be white, scold immigrant workers like naughty children, fire rabble-rousers who complain about safety hazards and stiff their perma-temp employees on their paychecks.

But -- before you break out your violin -- the film is not a heart-wrenching sob story about the evils of capitalism. Quite the opposite, it focuses on two upbeat young activists, the director of a nonprofit computer-training center and a labor organizer. Their drive and optimism take a film that could have been an exercise in noblesse oblige and handwringing pity for the underclass and turn it into an engaging and even entertaining documentary.

We meet Magda Escobar, executive director of Plugged In, a nonprofit organization in East Palo Alto, Calif., that trains poor Silicon Valley residents in computer skills. The filmmakers follow Escobar as she searches for a new location for her center when the low-income neighborhood around it is gentrified into the 21st century.

"I worry about whether we are going to make payroll in 90 days," says Escobar. Contrast that with the $200,000 that companies like @Home blow on coaster cars to race in the annual Sand Hill Challenge, a soapbox derby and networking extravaganza that raises money for nonprofits like Plugged In. (Kids from Plugged In also compete with their own car, which costs closer to $1,500. In recent years, the kids have won. Score one for the underdogs.)

While Escobar is busy shaking down the likes of Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, to raise money for a new training center, just miles away, Raj Jayadev, 24, is trying to help his co-workers -- who assemble Hewlett-Packard printers -- actually get paid for all the hours they work. It's just one of the delicious ironies documented in "Secrets of Silicon Valley": HP shorts the paychecks of its temporary workers and then benevolently gives the money it saves to charities. Who most needs the services of a dot-org like Plugged In? Why, people who are trying to train their way out of shitty assembly-line factory jobs, of course.

Jayadev, who is introduced at the start of the film with a subtitle that reads "temporary worker," wears a small hoop earring on either side of his shaved head. He's a portrait of youthful idealism: "People have to drive in from 75 to 100 miles away, because they can't afford the valley they're creating," he laments.

But the more Jayadev talks and the more we learn about life on the factory floor, the more confused we get about who he really is. Why does this "temporary worker" seem to know more about labor law than the average employment attorney?

Railing against conditions at the San Jose factory where he works putting together Hewlett-Packard products, Jayadev exclaims, "The whole place is an ergonomic nightmare. We have more than double the industry standard of workplace injuries."

At another point in the film, Jayadev recalls how he and his fellow box heavers and Styrofoam-packing stuffers started a petition drive to protest being shorted on their paychecks. The drive got results: The temp agency that employed them for Hewlett-Packard began paying up in full and on time. But when Jayadev raised health and safety concerns at the same factory (he himself developed a persistent, hacking cough), he was fired after just six months on the job. Soon enough, he was testifying before the California Senate Hearing on Economic Insecurity in Silicon Valley and petitioning the Department of Industrial Relations about his illegal dismissal.

If Jayadev sounds more politically savvy than your average Silicon Valley factory worker (which, at least initially, is what the film makes him out to be), it's because he is. This temp worker, as a quick Internet search reveals, also holds a degree in political science and labor studies from UCLA and has interned at the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Health and Safety.

The film's ambiguity about Jayadev's background does not invalidate his ambitions, but it's distracting. Instead of focusing on the injustices that Jayadev is fighting, we end up playing a guessing game: Is he a temporary worker? Or is he an organizer? Was he sent in by a union to suss out how bad things really are on the line? Or was he radicalized by the experiences on the job? Does "Secrets of Silicon Valley" portray the political awakening of an exploited tech worker? Or an activist in the process of making change?

The filmmakers of "Secrets of Silicon Valley" say they had no intention of playing down Jayadev's background, and that they set out to make a film about a community organizer and a community service worker, two activists with different strategies for social change. "We always saw him as an activist from the first time that we met him," says Kaufman, the co-director, speaking about Jayadev. "I think that we didn't mean it to be as ambiguous as the way you saw it," she laughs.

But the film uses no narration, so Jayadev's sole identification comes from the brief subtitle early on. This strategy of letting characters tell their own stories without voice-over causes some confusion, but it also gives the documentary a light touch and keeps it from turning into a heavy-handed diatribe about the evils of corporate exploitation in Silicon Valley.

The approach works best when the film juxtaposes words and images that show Silicon Valley's conflicting ideas about itself. Take, for example, the scene in which Avram Miller, the emeritus chairman of Plugged In, and a former vice president at Intel, describes why it was so hard to raise money for the nonprofit in this valley of gold. He parrots what a Silicon Valley executive might think -- but would never say -- about giving his money (his "life force," as Miller puts it) to a nonprofit: "They're going to squander it on stupid things. How can I give money to people who I don't respect." As he's saying this, Snitow and Kaufman show us a Silicon Valley executive waving like a sultan as he hams it up on the back of a camel on Sand Hill Road at the soapbox derby challenge.

As for Jayadev, organizer and temp worker, it's impossible not to root for him. "I want the secret of Silicon Valley just exploded everywhere," he declares. "I want that myth destroyed, because it pisses me off every damn day." Although his power-to-the-people rhetoric can run a bit thick, Jayadev's pleasure in his own subversiveness -- and the real possibility that he, Escobar and the other "secret" workers of Silicon Valley can rally up the tech trenches -- is infectious: "When we do something in one little plant in Silicon Valley, I feel like the most dangerous person on the planet," he grins.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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