When reading “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” by Lisa Nakamura, I was struck by what I found to be the blatant exploitation of Navajo women in the electronics manufacturing industry. According to Nakamura, Fairchild Semiconductor chose to “insource” their manufacturing to a Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico because of the cheap labor and “flexible” workforce. However, the story the company presented to the public was spun to make it seem like Fairchild was something of a savior for the Navajo people: Fairchild publicized that semiconductor manufacturing was “natural” work for what Newsweek called the “untapped wealth of natural characteristics of the Navajo,” like their design skills honed by rug weaving.
Even though Fairchild was providing jobs to the Navajo, I was alarmed at how the company justified their choice of workers. While Fairchild exalted the “‘highly skilled’ female cultural labor” and decorated their brochure in Navajo images and poetry to make it appear as though the Navajo were destined for this work, the actual reasoning behind their Shiprock plant was economically driven and did not seem to take the workers themselves into consideration. Because the plant was on an Indian reservation, Fairchild received perks from the federal government for providing jobs and was able to pay salaries below the minimum wage.
My biggest concern is with how Fairchild essentially rewrote Navajo culture to fit their script and make itself appear better. Their advertisements lauding the Navajo workers’ “natural” fit into the electronics manufacturing industry were ubiquitous — but how much of the general public could have actually believed this? The ideas Fairchild spun were exploitative and racist, and from my position fifty years after the opening of the plant this bias seems painfully obvious. I’m surprised that Fairchild successfully used these excuses without significant backlash from the Navajo and outside protesters. The article implies that the Fairchild plant is not connected to the American Indian Movement, but I have to wonder if there is truly no relationship between the two.
But then again, I can kind of understand why consumers didn’t protest the poor working conditions that allowed them to have their special electronics — it’s not like American consumers have stopped buying iPhones even though it’s basically common knowledge that many of the workers in Asian manufacturing plants are suffering through deplorable working conditions. I’m as guilty as any of these consumers, but at the same time I don’t walk around worrying about where my clothes were made or where my computer came from. I think the only way for people to actually understand the exploitation that is happening is for these manufacturing jobs to be here, right in front of us; but the likelihood of such a scenario seems quite minuscule at least in the near future.