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[editor's note, by jsm] This story was a long time in the writing. It all stems back to a a rather controversial story we published here a while ago, which contained a rather controversial assertion about chip maker AMD. Specifically, it claimed that AMD chips were made in sweatshops in the Third World. Naturally, we at adequacy would never print such an outrageous claim without checking it up. Here are the results of our investigations, with only the lightest of editorial and legal cuts.
Two high-tech companies. Two chip production facilities. Two products regarded by most of their users as broadly interchangeable. But between the glittering, clean modern plants of Intel, with their antistatic-suited, health-insured, unionised and skilled workers, and the dirty, hot, malodorous infernos of AMD, where malnourished children eke out a dangerous living amid the splashes of red-hot molten silicon, there is a chasm that spans worlds. Very few casual computer users ever realise (their ignorance helped by a smug, complacent industry media) quite the extent of the human cost which goes into AMD's suspiciously budget-priced chips.
Our investigation started on a tip-off from roving East Asian adequacy.org editor Kip, who began married life in the unstable tropical paradise of the South China Sea last year. Setting up house in the Philippines as a high-priced software mercenary, he became somewhat peturbed at the number of children he saw on the streets everyday, begging for food and missing fingers, thumbs or occasionally whole limbs. Children and young women disfigured by burn scars, or blinded and carrying the marks of corrosive chemical spills. Over time, he began to realise that a disproportionately high number of these casualties of a developing economy were wearing polo shirts, baseball caps and beach shorts carrying a logo familiar to him from his days as a high-end embedded systems designer in London; the logos of chip giant AMD.
When I got off the plane at Manila International Airport, I was met by T Reginald Gibbons, the contributor of the original article which had caused all the trouble. Talking on the shuttle bus from the airport into town, I was struck by his mild manner and devout Christian belief. Although I have, rather notoriously, had a few run-ins with right-wing Christians on the staff of adequacy.org, Reginald impressed me with the sincerity of his faith, and the intensity of his passion to expose this scandal.
On my second evening in Manila, after sleeping off the jet-lag, I took a stroll with Reginald into the area of town known as "Chip Hell". This was a short ride by motorcycle taxi away from Reginald's comfortable white-porched villa on the fashionable east side of town, but it might as well have been the other side of the world. A ranshackle assembly of tin huts, chicken-wire and improvised drainage, with pigs running loose in the streets, walls tied together with gaffer tape, and everywhere the stench of ammonia and human excrement. Looming ominously above the shanty town were the two huge corrugated huts which made up AMD's main assembly plant. This was the "fab" (short for "favela", from the Spanish for "slum").
We walked on, trying to ignore the snapping of the stray dogs which roamed at will through the AMD fab, taking in the sights and sounds, and always the omnipresent reek of the toxic PCBs used in chip manufacture. A prematurely aged woman stood by the side of the road, with a gaggle of small children clustered round her ankles as she laboriously turned the handle of an adapted clothes-mangle, while her husband balanced nearby on two factory-second artificial legs, his hands shaking as he poured liquidised window putty through a funnel onto the rollers. The two of them were squeezing out motherboards -- the lowest of the low in the jungle pecking order of the fab. Over the road, a young man sat, himself pinched with poverty, but eyeing the aged pair through his counterfeit Oakley sunglasses with the air of a feudal blacksmith surveying the churls in the fields. In his hands, he held a pair of tin-snips and a small hammer; next to his roadside stool, a stak of scavenged Pepsi-Cola cans. With unbelievable manual dexterity, he took a sheet of motherboard still sticky and viscous from the press, slammed it flat onto an upturned steel bucket in front of him, and began snipping metal from a can, hammering it out flat and applying it to the surface of the motherboard before it cooled. The acrid fumes rising up from his workbench were already turning his eyes yellow, but completed motherboards would sell for US$0.60 a kilogram when the AMD factory cart came round in the morning, and this would provide him with enough money to buy ever-plentiful heroin from the child peddlers who continually tugged at our coats. When he put his hammer down and started looking for a vein, I decided I'd had enough and asked Reginald if we could return to the hotel.
The next day our work started in earnest with the first interview:
Maria-Consuela J was a young union organiser and womens' rights activist nicknamed "Conchita" in Chip Hell. She told us about the long assembly benches in the big halls, where young women sat for ten-hour shifts without so much as a bathroom break, gluing chips into motherboards.
"The cowhide glue is the worst part. They make it out the back of the factory, stirring it up in big vats. Any dead animal, or leftover bones when we have meat, they go into the glue vats. The smell is horrible and it makes your fingers red".
Conchita showed us her hands; every finger had at least one red, angry blister, several of which were burst and weeping. I was amazed at her toughness; despite the obvious physical pain, she maintained the aztlan.net workers' rights website from a scavenged Microsoft ergonomic keyboard and a computer cobbled together from cast-off parts in the back room of a shack which served as the community centre. Her jaw was firm and her gaze unwavering as she told us about the way in which the female workers in the motherboard hall were treated.
"The supervisors are pigs. Worse than pigs. They demand sexual favours and make crude remarks to us all the time. We are a very traditional Catholic country, so the women find this very shameful. If you talk back to them they will give you the worst motherboards; the ones with bubbles in them, or with grease in the plastic. These are harder to make the glue stick, so you end up losing money".
Guido V-R was an elite worker in the heart of the fabrication plant itself. Although this put him practically in the aristocracy of the fab, he was still left in no doubt about his status by the predominantly white senior management.
"I am a craftsman. My father carved miniature religious basreliefs on the sides of cigar boxes. I inherited his tools, and now I use them to carve the silicon chips. But the yanquis do not respect. They abuse us constantly. We spend our days making their chips, and they just shout at us. They call us "Taco" and "Nethack". I do not know why. Filipinos are not Mexicans. They are very ignorant."
Guido was not involved in union activity:
"I do not join the union, because the craftsmen in the chip room are not allowed and I cannot lose my job; I have family to support. But we have our own ways. If the bosses ride us too hard then --kkzzzpt!-- (he gestured in the air with his razor-sharp chip-engraving awl) a hairline scratch across twenty wafers! When the rejects come back from the consumers, they know that we are unhappy and they lay off of us for a while". As one might expect, Guido did not hold AMD's quality control in very high regard: "The qualitores are the old men, the simple ones, those who are no good for anything else. They are only there to keep the ISO9000 people happy. Why should I make good chips for $0.90 an hour?"
Pablo C was lucky enough to be employed at the chip plant, and so was a rung above the unfortunate outworkers of the kind we had seen the day before in Chip Hell. However, as an illiterate, unskilled manual laborer, his position was as fragile as the AMD silicon wafers themselves. His task was to spend the day lifting the 200-pound slabs of silicon from the quarry wagons, then pounding them into fine powder and finally tipping this powder into the furnaces which would smelt it into the molded wafers which formed the raw material for Guido. We saw him at work; the conditions were appalling beyond my ability to describe. Working shifts of up to 20 hours when conditions in the global SDRAM market demanded it, Pablo was forced to the heights of physical exertion, all the time inhaling the choking silicon dust and braving the fumes and satanic heat of the blast furnaces which gave Chip Hell its name.
"Every day I get weaker. The dust burns my lungs until I cannot breathe. The heat makes me feel that I am dying. I need to stop and rest, but if I stop, the furnace will stop and I will not be paid. My eyes are scratched by the smoke and the fumes. I feel my muscles start to fail. Soon I will be too weak to work on the quarry line and my place will be taken by one of the younger boys. I am old now. I am 24 and I am the oldest man on the line. Soon I will be unable to work, and I will join the pourers and pressers of motherboard resin."
We were shocked by this. I had estimated Pablo's age to be 45 at least. His breathing was clearly giving him trouble, and we tried to get medical attention for him, but the meagre clinic with which AMD supplied Chip Hell did not have the scanner he needed. Pablo refused our offer of a trip to a hospital in Manila; he seemed convinced that a popular local remedy of pounded tree bark would cure his advanced silicosis. We saw no hope in the favela for him.
Back in the USA, I spoke to Gordon Moore, chief executive of the American Microprocessing Devices Corporation, an industry body dedicated to lobbying Congress for a level playing field between domestic high-end chip manufacturers and the cut-price Asian operators. He gave us some industry context for the domestic economic consequences of Chip Hell:
"Well, what you've got to understand is that AMD are producing a low-quality, cut-price product, of the kind that it's difficult for us to compete with, because we have respect, for our customers and our employees, and that means that we just can't run the kind of operation they do. AMD basically make chips which are about four years behind our technology here in the USA, like 200KHZ Pentiums, but then they 'overclock' them, which is kind of like turning the dial back on a car, and sell them over here as 1GhZ Pentium Pros. And we're saying to the government that, hey, that isn't right. And so far, they'd rather preserve their globalisation and their GATT Treaty than safeguard American workers' jobs. It's a outrage."
It is not the place of mere weblogs like adequacy.org to comment on important matters of international economy and diplomacy. And, in this post 9/11 climate, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the case for or against globalization. But, as Mr. Moore points out, the AMD policy of raiding the market with its "overclocked" chips, directed squarely toward the lucrative teenage "hacker" and "Linux" market, is bad for the American chip industry. And in Manila, I saw the human consequences of this company's manufacturing practices for myself. When I looked into Chip Hell.