For instance, in 1984, along with the Macintosh computer, Apple also introduced a $20 million “Robot Factory” in Fremont, California, that the company called “the most automated factory in the Western world,” even though it was 140 human beings, “mostly women, mostly immigrants–who actually put the Macintosh together,” Hyman says. In that, it was like the rest of the fast-growing electronics industry, which relied on undocumented workers and immigrants for its factories and temps for its offices to create a “buffer zone” to keep layoffs off the front page.
Apple’s use of the word “robot” turned out to be a “a very important cultural sleight of hand,” Hyman says. “This rhetorical distinction helped Silicon Valley employ workers in ways that never would have happened in postwar Detroit,” because unofficial and subcontracted workers were not protected by the same wage and safety rights.
To Hyman, an economic historian at Cornell, this explains the absence of labor unions in tech. “Managers wanted obedient employees—preferably immigrants. While technical knowledge, and venture capital, was lauded for the valley’s achievements, that success was made possible by a hidden underworld of flexible, poorly paid labor,” he writes.
Decades later, Uber could stay flexible because workers had few options. But observers often conflated cause and effect, blaming the gig economy, its use of non-employee contractors, and the unfeeling efficiency of smartphone apps. “Uber did not cause this precarious economy. It is the waste product of the service economy,” Hyman counters. “Uber is possible because shift work, even with a W-2 is so bad.”
kinda funny how similar this is to my gig economy piece (i wrote mine first i swear):
These companies, and the people who work for them, did not personally create the conditions of precarity that allowed them to accumulate power and profit on an enormous scale. They are not to blame for these preconditions. But if we ever want to transcend these preconditions, we’ll have to halt their pursuit of never ending growth.