Cleaning the Buildings of High Tech Companies in Silicon Valley: The Case of Mexican Janitors in Sonix (Working Paper #17)

Christián Zlolniski, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte

Introduction: Silicon Valley is internationally known as the heart of the high-technology industry and a paradigmatic example of the new economy that many other regions in the U.S. and abroad want to emulate. The region also is well-know for the high concentration of foreign-born computer engineers, programmers, scientists and other highly educated technical workers whose labor critically contributes to the vitality and success of the high-tech industry (Alarcon, 1999). Less known is the important concentration of low-skilled Mexican immigrant workers who live in the region and are employed in a large diversity of service occupations directly connected to the maintenance of the high-technology industry complex. An example is the case of Mexican workers employed in the building cleaning industry in the region. Usually working in night shifts, they form an army of “invisible workers” in charge of cleaning the offices, “clean rooms”, and administrative buildings of the numerous high-tech companies that are concentrated in this region. Employed by independent firms and contractors, Mexican and Central American workers become the backbone of the building-cleaning industry in the 1980s, providing a reliable source of hard-working, cheap and flexible labor for the high-tech client corporations that subcontract their services. Little is known however about the labor, working and living conditions of these workers, as if the glamour of Silicon Valley with all its concentration of wealth and economic success would hide the existence of this segment of the region’s working class.

In this paper I seek to examine the case of Mexican immigrants who clean the office buildings of large high-tech corporations employed by independent contractors in the Silicon Valley. The paper is divided in two parts. First, I analyze the structural factors that lead the building-cleaning industry in Silicon Valley to depend on Mexican immigrant workers in the 1980s, and the consequences of this process on the labor and working conditions in this sector. In the second part I illustrate this process with a case-study of Sonix1, a major high-tech corporation in Silicon Valley that, since the mid-1980s, employs Mexican immigrants to clean the numerous building it owns in the region through subcontracted companies. In the paper, I also discuss the unionization of thousands of immigrants who are employed in this industry in the region and the impact of such campaign on the labor and working conditions of these workers.

The paper is based on ethnographic work I conducted with Mexican immigrants employed as janitorial workers in Sonix in Silicon Valley. Most of the information about the experience of these workers was gathered by formal and informal interviews conducted in their homes, as well as observation and interaction with them in public places where they gather to socialize. This information was complemented with interviews with several managers of both Sonix and one of its largest janitorial contractors. Quantitative data about the building-cleaning industry in Silicon Valley comes from census data, surveys from the Employment Development Department in California (EDD), and other secondary sources.

Working Paper #17»