The popular image of high-technology firms is one of modern plants, a cerebral and highly motivated work force and state-of-the-art production facilities, including the latest in automated equipment.
But as a raid by immigration officers at a Chatsworth electronics plant last week demonstrated, the reality sometimes is quite different.
Of 85 production workers at Senior Systems Technology Inc., 61 were detained as suspected illegal aliens. They were taken from an assembly line that one observer described as "not much more than a conveyor belt that goes around a big room."
The raid, and similar forays last fall by immigration officers in the Silicon Valley around San Jose, have highlighted the trend among some high-tech firms to meet price competition from overseas plants by using only those workers willing to accept the lowest wages, industry analysts say.
Work for Simple Tasks
Generally, illegal aliens are hired to perform simple tasks such as assembling the electronic circuit boards like those produced at the raided Chatsworth plant.
Interviews with industry analysts indicated that the trend toward illegal-alien labor--mostly drawn from Mexico and Central America--is occurring at a faster pace in the high-tech community of the West San Fernando Valley-Ventura County than in the Silicon Valley or in Orange County, the state's two other centers of high-technology industries.
Carl Warren, West Coast editor of Mini-Microsystems, a magazine that covers the computer industry, said West Valley employers are more likely to use illegal aliens than are their counterparts elsewhere because of the Valley's "proximity to Los Angeles' barrio" and the absence in the Valley of significant numbers of Vietnamese workers, who often perform assembly tasks for minimum wage.
Similarly, Jeff Parietti, director of the American Electronics Assn. in Palo Alto, said many Silicon Valley and Orange County firms have been able to hold labor costs down without turning to illegal aliens by hiring from large local Vietnamese communities, which he said provide legal workers who "work hard, don't mind repetitive jobs, are reliable and in general are great employees."
Valley Numbers Unknown
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Southern California, who only recently focused enforcement efforts on high-technology firms, said they were unable to estimate the percentage of illegal-alien workers in the local computer, aerospace and electronics industries.
But in the Silicon Valley, which most industry observers agreed has a smaller proportion of illegal aliens than does the San Fernando Valley, the local INS supervisor estimated that illegal aliens are 8% of the high-tech work force.
"Eight percent might not sound like a lot, but it amounts to about 25,000 workers in Santa Clara County alone, and at some firms the workers are 100% illegal," said John Senko, officer in charge of the San Jose office of the INS.
"We don't know how widespread the practice of hiring illegal aliens is in high-technology firms," said Joe Flanders, spokesman for the Los Angeles INS office, which conducted last week's raid. "But we have become aware that it is growing."
Under federal law, he said, "it is not illegal to knowingly hire an illegal alien."
Five Raids a Month
Flanders said that the Los Angeles INS office, which deports about 60,000 aliens a year, conducts an average of five factory raids each month in Southern California and that the Chatsworth raid represented a decision to step up enforcement in high-technology industries.
Industry analysts said the use of illegal labor is more prevalent among small firms, such as Senior Systems Technology, that supply parts to larger firms than it is among industry leaders.
An economic downturn in the computer and electronics industries that began more than three years ago squeezed small firms harder than their high-tech big brothers, which were able to produce overseas or contract with overseas firms to supply parts, said Warren, the Los Angeles-based analyst.
A year ago, Qume Corp., a subsidiary of International Telephone & Telegraph Corp., transferred its computer-making operations to Taiwan, laying off 800 workers at its San Jose plant.
Operations Shifted to India
And Tandon Corp., the Chatsworth-based maker of computer disk drives, last year laid off 1,400 of its 3,000 workers in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley and transferred most manufacturing operations to its plants in India, where assemblers work for as little as 5 cents an hour.
Warren asked, "How can an American firm compete with overseas plants that pay what we consider starvation wages, although workers in those countries are often overjoyed to get the jobs?"
"The small firms are caught in a price squeeze of the worst sort," said Parietti. "They are looking for every opportunity to cut costs, because their customers have the option of going overseas and many have been exercising that option."