Bloom Energy’s Mexican workers problem reminds me of IBM scrape years ago

This Bloom Energy story about bringing in welders from Mexico to do work in Silicon Valley that they are not authorized to do got me thinking about a brush IBM had with immigration authorities back in 1996.

IBM was eventually — and somewhat controversially — cleared of wrongdoing. Not so for Bloom, which the U.S. Department of Labor fined about $38,000 for back pay and penalties.

Publication:       SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

Headline:          INS CLEARS IBM ON IMPORTED HELP; WORKER DISAGREES

Subhead:

Web Headline:

Reporter:          By MIRANDA EWELL, Mercury News Staff Writer

Day:     Thursday

Print Run Date:             10/3/96

Section:            Front

Edition:             Morning Final

Page Number: 1

Section Letter: A

Memo:             Thomas Farragher of the Mercury News Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

     Immigration officials said Wednesday that they were satisfied that IBM did not violate the law by using visas generally reserved for training to import Mexican workers who assembled disk drives at Third World wages in its San Jose plant.

“We reviewed their documents and received a clarification of the company’s training program, ” said Sharon Rummery, an official in the San Francisco office of the INS. “Based on our preliminary inquiry, the INS is satisfied that the B-1 visas were used appropriately and that IBM is in compliance with the law.”

Rummery said immigration officers from the San Jose office met with IBM officials Tuesday to go over allegations from IBM employees that the world’s largest computer maker had misused business visas obtained to bring the workers to the United States. IBM said the workers were here legally, for training.

“Needless to say, IBM is pleased, ” said Cary Ziter, spokesman for IBM in San Jose. “Their statement speaks volumes and I don’t think we’ll go beyond that. It’s closed as far as we can tell.”

But Rummery said INS officials had not decided whether to close the inquiry. She said she had no information on what documents were reviewed or whether immigration officials interviewed IBM assembly workers. The IBM worker in San Jose who alerted federal officials to the situation said he was never interviewed by INS investigators.

No procedure

And even as the INS was awarding IBM a clean bill of health, that employee said that if IBM did import workers from its Guadalajara plant as a training exercise, the company didn’t follow its own rigorous training procedures.

Normally, training of IBM workers on the assembly line is carefully documented, according to worker Gilbert Rodriguez. IBM has been certified as adhering to an international quality-management system, known as ISO-9000, a Good-Housekeeping-type seal for business organizations that is widely embraced by American industry.

“The ISO-9000 rules are companywide and it’s like a bible, ” Rodriguez said.

These standards, to which many Silicon Valley firms subscribe, require that training procedures be carefully documented, according to Richard James, director of conformity assessment at the American National Standards Institute, one of five permanent bodies of ISO-9000. Officials at Intel Corp. and Quantum Corp., for instance, confirmed that as ISO-9000 participants, they keep rigorous documentation any time an employee receives training.

Work not monitored

At IBM, Rodriguez said, ISO-9000 standards mean that trainers initially monitor trainees’ work on scrap material rather than final products. Later, a third party tests the trainee to see if the new procedures have been learned properly. The entire process – the names of the trainer, the trainee and the certifier; the written material provided to the trainee; the new procedures learned; and the precise dates and hours of training – are documented in written records that are kept in the work area where the training occurs, he said.

When the Mexican workers were brought in to begin work on Aug. 2, however, Rodriguez said, “there were no trainers and no certifiers and no documentation.”

“They were never trained, ” he said. “They were working on final product the first day they came.”

IBM’s Ziter, who praised the INS for reaching its conclusion so swiftly, declined to comment on the company’s training procedures.

Earlier Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., questioned INS Commissioner Doris Meissner about IBM’s practices at a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on immigration.

“I think it’s important that companies not get started misusing visas to be able to pay cheap labor in the United States and therefore deny legitimate workers in our country those jobs, ” Feinstein told Meissner. “This one case, I don’t know what the answer is. But I think this one case joins the issue very clearly.”

Ziter has acknowledged that IBM routinely brings in foreign workers for training programs.

$1.40 an hour

A Mexican supervisor and worker, two of 10 workers who labored seven days a week at the Cottle Road facility for roughly $1.40 per hour, told the Mercury News the work they did in San Jose was “exactly” the same as their work in Guadalajara. The company, which paid for the workers’ transportation and living expenses while here, said the workers were brought in on business visas for training and not to meet production demands.

It was “illogical, ” Ziter said earlier this week, to believe the company would bring in 10 workers from Mexico for production in a plant that employs 5,000. There are usually anywhere from 30-40 workers in the head-stack assembly area, where the Mexican workers were assigned, according to a U.S. worker also assigned there.

IBM workers said an earlier group of 23 Mexicans, who also had worked seven days a week for a three-month stretch, returned to Guadalajara a month ago. They said Guadalajara workers rotate in to IBM’s U.S. plants as needed to meet production needs.

The Mexican workers returned to Guadalajara last weekend.

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1 Comment

Filed under Silicon Valley Business, Silicon Valley Life

One response to “Bloom Energy’s Mexican workers problem reminds me of IBM scrape years ago

  1. Pingback: Bloom Energy’s Mexican worker scandal echoes earlier Silicon Valley problems | SiliconBeat

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