Bloom Energy's Mexican worker scandal echoes earlier Silicon Valley problems

This Bloom Energy story — the one where the Department of Labor busted the buzzy green tech company for importing Mexican workers at substandard wages — is just weird.

There is bound to be more coming, and I can’t wait to see what it is. It conjures up images of Silicon Valley high-tech execs cruising the parking lot at Home Depot looking for day laborers.

I’m guessing this is a little more involved. The story so far is that Bloom, which is famous for its energy cells called Bloom boxes, brought in 14 welders from Chihuahua, Mexico and paid them $2.66 an hour in pesos for their trouble.

“This investigation has remedied illegal pay practices for a group of workers subjected to substandard wages, “Ruben Rosalez, a Labor Department administrator for the region’s Wage and Hour Division, said in a news release. “It is appalling that this was happening right in the heart of Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest per capita areas in the U.S.”

No kidding.

I’m guessing that some subcontractor must be involved. It just seems too weird for a high-profile tech company to step in it so solidly.

Then again, I’ve found Bloom to be something of an odd duck. I’ve been working for some time on a series of columns about manufacturing in the Bay Area. Bloom, which makes some of its boxes in Sunnyvale, seemed like an ideal candidate for inclusion in the series.

It had a future-looking and fascinating product. It had the glow of supplying electricity to super star companies like Google. It was creating jobs in the U.S. Its media coverage had been glowing.

Bloom’s response when I asked to speak to executives about all the good they were doing in the valley?

No thanks.

The whole thing reminds me of an earlier Silicon-Valley-goes-to-Mexico story.   Back in 1996, IBM was temporarily in hot water for bringing in workers from Mexico to staff its disk drive line in San Jose. The workers were paid $1.40 an hour.

IBM said the work was part of a company training program and the feds ultimately agreed.

The Bloom story, it seems, is headed for a different ending.

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.