Afghan Refugees

They worked for U.S. troops, now work on iPhones in Elk Grove

By Stephen Magagnini

smagagnini@sacbee.com

June 26, 2016 06:00 AM

Just before 4 p.m. on any given weekday, dozens of Afghan refugees arrive at the Apple Inc. campus in Elk Grove to work the swing shift.

Many of them are interpreters, doctors or engineers who were awarded Special Immigrant Visas for assisting U.S. forces in the war in Afghanistan. Now they earn between $10 and $12 an hour checking the functions on iPhones.

Apple rarely discloses information about its Elk Grove operation and would not discuss in any detail what employees do there.

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But a spokesman confirmed that several hundred Afghans are among the 4,000 people who work at the Laguna West facility, a group that includes many other immigrants as well. The Elk Grove campus handles operations, tech support and repair.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said his company makes a point of hiring immigrants. In a December speech at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, he told the audience, “It’s our deep commitment to advance equal rights by opening our arms to employees and customers of all backgrounds and anyone who has been passed on, or cast aside.”

Afghan employees say they were recruited to work at Apple’s Elk Grove plant by the staffing firm Volt Workforce Solutions. Volt hires Afghan refugees through individual contracts of varying lengths and signs their paychecks. Many employees are rehired over and over again.

“Volt is one of the largest staffing companies in the U.S.,” said marketing director Katie Dunwell. “California’s our sweet spot. We have a great military program, and we’re super proud of where we’re placing military vets.”

Apple would not allow a reporter to visit the site. But Dr. Fahim Pirzada, a former emergency room doctor and protocol officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, offered a description of what employees do, based on a month he spent working at Elk Grove in 2014.

Pirzada said he quit because he was stretched too thin working at his other paid job as a medical interpreter and running his nonprofit, VIRTIS, which helps Afghan refugees dealing with mental health issues and trauma.

Pirzada said he was thrilled to land a job with such a signature American company. Like many of his fellow refugees, Pirzada said he chose the swing shift – from 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. – so he could keep appointments and perform other tasks during the day.

The glamour quickly wore off once he realized what the job entailed. Every day, his group trainer would assign him and other workers to one of 11 to 15 job stations. “My goal was to check 250-300 phones a day,” he said.

Pirzada said he checked each phone to see if the on and off switches worked. The phones were then passed on to other workers who checked microphones, batteries, charges, volume, cameras, quality and ability to make phone calls – about a dozen functions in all. All problem phones were assigned a code and then transferred to repair technicians. Every day thousands of iPhones came in for repair or refurbishing, he said.

“This is a good job for a kid who just graduated from high school to make some money, but not a place to learn something, grow and use your management and leadership skills,” said Pirzada. He said he and other highly qualified Afghans were promised promotions, “but nobody got promoted.”

Along with no promotions, there was no job security, Pirzada said. People were hired on three-month contracts, and Volt reserved the right to lay them off then or renew the contract. “A lot of people were called after their first 3 or 6 months and were told, ‘Sorry we don’t need you,’ ” he said.