One way to make Apple CEO Tim Cook uncomfortable is to mention the labor conditions at Foxconn, the tech company’s China-based manufacturer. Ben Field knows that, which is why he broached the subject at a recent Apple shareholders meeting.
But Field, who serves as an executive officer for the South Bay Labor Council, wasn’t actually that interested in Apple’s efforts to improve overseas working conditions, which Cook defended vigorously. He’s more interested in the company’s treatment of workers at home. He’s trying to unionize them to demand better pay and benefits.
The public outcry over Foxconn was an obvious black eye for Apple, and the company now devotes a huge section of its website to championing unions in China. But when it comes to the yawning wage and class gap at home in Silicon Valley, Field says it’s a different story.
It turns out that Apple, a company with $41 billion in revenue and a market value of $623 billion, according to its 2012 corporate filings, doesn’t just outsource manufacturing. It also contracts for some of its lowest-paid domestic tasks — namely, security.
Apple contracts with a private firm, Security Industry Specialists, which dispatches about 250 subcontract employees to its pristine campus in Cupertino. Field and other organizers say the vast majority of them work part-time, with no benefits, at an hourly wage of $16 — far too low to rent or buy an apartment in Silicon Valley.
An SIS spokesman declined to comment, and Apple could not be reached. But union advocates are making a stink about this disparity. They say the culture of secrecy at Apple and other SIS partners, including Google and eBay, is so pervasive that current security employees, and even many of their former counterparts, are afraid to talk.
“I go visit these campuses,” Field said. “The security officers are not free to talk with organizers at all. They’re required to inform their superiors immediately if anyone has made contact with them.”
He says the anti-union sentiment is so pervasive at SIS that when one group of guards tried to meet to discuss the possibility of unionizing, the company sent a mole to infiltrate their ranks. The Service Employees International Union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., protesting such activity. A panel of judges at the NLRB found that SIS had, indeed, violated the law, but it decided to conditionally dismiss the charges. In a letter obtained by The San Francisco Examiner, NLRB Regional Director William Baudler said SIS’ conduct was “isolated.”
Anecdotally, the outlook for these workers looks grim, says SEIU spokesman Kevin O’Donnell, recounting stories of 60-year-old Apple security guards who have to live with roommates because they can’t afford housing. He says that many live with their parents or in single-room occupancy hotels. And since many are part time and don’t get medical benefits, they rely on public clinics for medical care.
“What’s interesting about that is you have Apple really outsourcing its health care obligations to taxpayers without the public know[ing],” he said.