In front of Apple stores nationwide Friday, tech company employees gathered to protest alongside hundreds of eager customers waiting in line to buy the iPhone 6. But the protesters weren’t disgruntled Apple engineers or developers; they were security officers, maintenance and custodial staff demanding better wages from tech companies.
Backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), protesters gathered as part of “National Day of Action” in front of Apple stores over 20 cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle and even the Palo Alto store in San Jose where Tim Cook opened the store to celebrate the iPhone 6’s debut.
“The people who make up companies like Apple and Google are comfortable,” Charles Wilson, a San Jose security guard and SEIU protester, told ThinkProgress. But the people who help tech companies make their money by making, selling and transporting their products “have to make ends meet.”
The tech industry isn’t known for low wages; computer science majors are expected to make at least $50,000 a year, and some make up to around $80,000. But the workers who help keep Silicon Valley’s operations up and running don’t get paid nearly as handsomely. Many tech companies, including Apple, use contracting companies that provide security and cleaning services that often don’t pay workers enough to live in surrounding area.
“We’re basically here to educate customer about the invisible workforce,” Alfredo Fletes, a San Jose-based SEIU spokesperson, told ThinkProgress. “They cook, they clean” and “their standard of living is lowering, their wages are decreasing and we’re here to tell Apple they can do better.”
Unlike the tech industry overall, the invisible workforce of janitors, cooks and cleaning staff of which only 26 percent are white, according to a report from Working Partnerships USA. Asian or Pacific Islanders and Latinos make up almost 60 percent, with another 13 percent who are African American.
There are upwards of 3,000 security guards working in Silicon Valley who make $14.17 on average, Fletes said. Landscape workers make about $13.82 but a family of four with two working adults need to make at self-sufficiency standard $19.36 per hour for family of four with two working parents each.
“Some [customers] had no idea that people working in the Apple Store weren’t making minimum wage,” Wilson said. “I’ve asked for a raise before and been laughed at in my face by my boss who said: “You’ll never get a raise; you’re lucky to have a job.”
— NVLF (@NVLaborFed) September 19, 2014
This isn’t the first time Apple and other tech companies in Silicon Valley have been called out about wages. In August, LinkedIn settled to pay its workers nearly $3.5 million in unpaid overtime. Earlier this year, Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe had to pay $324 million to settle a lawsuit in which employees accused the companies of wage-fixing. Tech employees sued after the U.S. Department of Justice uncovered emails between top executives in which they colluded to not poach one another’s employees.
Friday’s protests, which ranged from a few handing out fliers to dozens picketing on storefronts, follows similar ones that took place in August.
Activists in San Francisco blocked tech workers from boarding the free company commuter shuttles in August, protesting the area’s gentrification problem which has increased income disparity and physically displaced low-wage workers, The Verge reported.
Silicon Valley’s income gap and the increasing economic polarization between the tech industry and its surrounding communities may be coming to a head. The area’s median income is $90,000, and people who make at least $100,000 a year are twice as likely to live in Silicon Valley than any other part of the country, which has spiked housing costs.
That influx of wealth into the area has pushed out lower income residents who make up a sizable share of the workforce. A fifth of Silicon Valley’s residents make less than $40,000 a year, which isn’t enough to live in the area near where they work. Though the region is often praised for its booming economy, middle class households have virtually disappeared and all but the highest skilled workers have seen their wages stagnate.
By employing contractors with bad wage practices, Apple and other tech companies are “contributing to cycle of low wages, an underclass of workers, Fletes said. “If Apple set self sufficiency standards, everyone else would follow.”
But Apple has yet to respond to the demands, Fletes said. “We’ve shared our concerns with other companies but we haven’t gotten the results we like; and Apple hasn’t responded to any of our messages to meet or talk,” he said.
But activists aren’t giving up hope. “We’re going to keep doing this until this injustice is corrected once and for all,” Wilson said.