Interview with an electronics worker in Romania, 2005

Romanian Selectron plant

Summary of a chat with a young guy who works for Solectron electronics in Timisoara, Romania, Summer 2004

About the international free trade zones in Romania
There used to be six free trade zones in Romania, where foreign investors were supposed to invest in low tax paradises. Today only one zone remains
http://freezone.arad.ro.

About Solectron
The US-based company Solectron is one of the world’s biggest electronics firms and produces electronic goods for different international companies. In Timisoara, Romania, Solectron produces, amongst other things: mobile phones for Alcatel, Ericsson and Nokia; wireless home phones for Phillips; elevator controls for Schneider; and satellite receivers for Pace. The communications giant Lucent has outsourced its entire telecommunications production to Solectron plants. In 2001, crisis kicked in at Solectron: by the end of 2001, 8,200 workers - about 10 per cent of Solectron’s global staff - had been sacked.

About Solectron in Timisoara
The company took over its first production unit in Timosoara in 1998, and in 1999 a green-field factory was opened about 10 km out of Timisoara. After each shift, a dozen big buses drive the workers back home into town. Until winter 2001, about 100 workers were hired every month, and then the mobile phone market slumped. In total, about 1,100 workers were sacked. They were offered two and a half month’s wages as compensation, which is illegal in Romania. Today, 4,000 workers work at Solectron-Timisoara, divided into four different shifts. In 2002, Solectron got the contract to produce satellite receivers for Pace, and Pace is its main client now. Every month, 40,000 units are produced for the West-European market - devices for which the end consumer will pay about 300 Euros. The company management claims that Pace needs double the amount of units that are currently being produced per month. Solectron-Timisoara lost the contract to produce car GPS systems for the French company Wavecom, and the production was relocated to China. For a while, the Solectron factory had a vice-management boss from Malaysia, who never ceased to tell people that the Solectron workers in Mexico or China are more productive and are only paid 80 US-Dollars per month. He was fired later on, for being in cahoots with a competing company.

About the workers
The average age at Solectron is thirty or younger. For manual assembly, mainly women are employed. Today, only 1,500 workers are permanent, while all the others are temps, mainly from Manpower and Lugera & Makler. The temps mainly work in the assembly department, and about 400 work in the offices and administration. It takes a week to train people in the manual assembly work. People only get one- or three-month contracts, and most of them are fired after this period, or they leave. Some who leave are students from smaller towns around Timisoara. The Romanian government passed a law that officially gave temp agencies the legal means to operate within private companies, but the law is very flexible. Some of the temp workers at Solectron have already worked there for two years. Most of the people at Solectron think that work there is better than in other companies or factories - at least there is air conditioning. Most of them also think that it won’t be easy to get another job.

About the wages
Production workers with a permanent contract are paid 150 US-Dollars per month. The wage relates to a 168-hour month. The temp workers get 100 US-Dollars, with no Christmas pay and no compensation for inflation. In the last four years, the net wages have not increased. Just for comparison: 1 Euro is about 40,000 Lei. A teacher earns about 4 Million Lei per month, and the minimum wage is 3 Million Lei.

About working time
People work six days in a row, then they have two days off. That way, the company doesn’t have to pay them overtime bonuses. There is more work mainly in spring and summer, because they are producing for the Christmas business. In spring 2003, they worked 12-hour shifts. In addition to the fixed 168 hours, there is a maximum of 32 hours overtime per month.

About the organisation of work
Every ‘client’ has its own production line. With twelve lines, Pace has the biggest production capacity. Sometimes the different lines are separated by partition walls, mainly when the client’s managers come to visit. The production lines of the different clients are often changed around, according to the amount of work and workers needed. Most of the workers work in manual assembly - they put in the batteries, stick labels on, and put together the mobile phone shells. The machine operators also move from machine to machine, according to their level of experience. They solve small problems themselves; otherwise, there are maintenance workers. Single machines are used for different products, e.g. mobile phone parts for different brands. The machines that assemble and solder the circuit boards are also used for different products, e.g. satellite receivers and GPS systems. The raw circuit boards come from Taiwan or China. The workers don’t identify with a single product or brand, even if they are working on the Nokia line, for example, for a while. Some sections of the assembly department are equipped with conveyor belts; in others, transport is done manually. There are a lot of time-keeping creeps running around, and one supervisor per line keeps watch on the pace. Sometimes the management announces that a specific amount of units have to be finished for the next day, and that the lorries to Hungary are waiting.

About the unions
There are two unions at Solectron, neither of which is doing anything. The first union, the ‘free union of Solectron’, is still involved in a legal process to gain its recognition. The main guy is probably friends with the management by now; in any case, the ‘free union’ is more or less invisible on the shop floor. As a reaction to the ‘free union’, the company management founded a yellow union, first called the ‘communication committee’, then ‘Universe’. It now organises the official majority of the workers, and the spokesman of ‘Universe’ on the shop floor has been promoted, and is now a supervisor. At the end of 2000, a small group of workers tried to organise an independent union group, and they were all fired. Some of them managed to force their re-employment later on. The company’s reaction was very repressive, and they used all kind of measures to scare people. Their security manager is a known ex-cop.

The future
There are hardly any open conflicts. People are discontented, mainly concerning the wages, but the company’s strategy of using a lot of temp workers in order to increase the pressure on the whole work force seems to work.

Additional information
A short note concerning the situation of Solectron in France from: Liberation, 15 January 2005

Sixth social plan at Solectron: 220 jobs and working time at risk
Solectron France, the US-American subcontractor for electronics, is preparing the sixth social plan in three and a half years. After slashing 5,000 jobs since 2001 the company has announced the cutting of another 227 at the last remaining plant in Canejan. In addition to the redundancies the company wants to revise the collective contract on working time signed in 1999. The weekly working time in production is supposed to be increased from 30 hours to 35 hours without wage compensation. The site in Canejan employed up to 2,000 permanent staff and as many temp workers. For the time being there remain only 1080 people working and the new redundancy plan would drop this down to less than 900. According to Bernard Piron, union rep of the CFTC, the announcement is not supposed to be official before the next meeting of the works council, but the workers are already expressing their anger at the unions. ‘The fuse of the powderkeg is lit, we have to find a solution to put it out’. [Source here]