Biting the Hand That Poisoned Them 

Chipmaker AXT exposed its workers to toxic levels of arsenic, then fired them. Now ex-workers are finally organizing to demand some long-term health care.

In the winter of 2004, Oakland resident Amber Chan and I arrived at a dismal Chinatown tenement located above a pornography storefront and pungent with grease and Asian herbs. We had come to talk to Fei Ying Zhao, a pale, diffident young woman who lived there with her in-laws, her husband, and her two-year-old son. In 2001 and 2002, while working for AXT, Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer based in Fremont, the pregnant Zhao was allegedly exposed to hazardous levels of gallium arsenide dust. For months, she said, she labored in a cramped room whose ventilation system was broken, and sucked the dust into her lungs, where it broke down into arsenic, a deadly toxin and carcinogen that may be linked to reproductive problems. When her son was born five weeks early, he was blind, his testicles were lodged in his pelvis, and he was diagnosed with a neurological birth defect that will probably leave him severely mentally retarded. Five months later, AXT fired her.

I'd been looking for people like Zhao for almost a year. Between 1998 and 2003, officials with AXT had knowingly poisoned up to five hundred Fremont employees with appalling levels of arsenic, according to government reports and the company's own internal records. In 2000, horrified state officials shut down the factory for four days and fined the company more than $300,000. But AXT officials hired the powerful law firm Littler Mendelson, appealed the fine, and dragged the case out for months -- all the while planning to move their factory to China, where American regulatory agencies have no jurisdiction. And despite repeated promises to clean up their act, they continued to poison their workers; company records indicated that one employee had been exposed to 31 times the maximum legal level of arsenic dust for hours at a time. Since 2001, roughly five hundred workers, 90 percent of them Chinese immigrants, had been fired.

It's probably no coincidence that the Chinese-American managers of AXT almost exclusively employed Chinese immigrants. They tend to speak little or no English, know next to nothing of their legal rights, and have almost no contact with a larger society that would have looked out for them had we known what was happening. Instead, after losing their jobs they disappeared back into the silent world of the immigrant underclass, seemingly never to be heard from again.

But Amber Chan wasn't content to let the matter rest. As the lead organizer for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, she had initially agreed to simply interpret for Zhao, who speaks only Cantonese, during the interview. When we stepped out into the cool night air two hours later, she vowed to do something.

Chan started with phone numbers for just seven of the five hundred employees. But Zhao had a friend who was still in contact with a few former workers, and Chan and her APEN colleagues began collecting names and making calls. Although state officials had visited the factory and warned employees about workplace arsenic levels in 2002, many former workers had no idea they may have been poisoned. In May 2004, officials of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network were preparing for their first meeting with AXT workers, at which the organizers would brief them on their legal rights and the potential risk of cancer.

Come time for the meeting, more than 130 people spilled out into the street at the organization's Chinatown office. Ken Hu, a reporter for the Bay Area Chinese-language daily newspaper Sing Tao, had gotten wind of the meeting, too, and showed up for the story. The organizers had wanted to keep things under the radar until they were ready to embarrass AXT into doing something for its employees, so when Chan saw Hu, she threw him out. But she knew her cover was blown. "I was a journalist, so I know even though I kick him out, he still have to cover," she says. Hu lurked outside and grabbed workers going in and out, and the next day, his story hit the front page. For the first time, thousands of Chinese immigrants around the Bay Area knew what AXT had done. "The next day, I got a call from an employee of AXT," Hu says. "And he say, 'You guys do a very great job, because you let the story come out. You let the Chinese community know what's happening in Fremont.'"

Over the next seven months, volunteer doctors and nurse practitioners from UC San Francisco screened 209 former employees for cancer and other health problems. The initial results were discomfiting. Roughly half of those screened reported feeling dizzy or having trouble breathing while working at the Fremont factory, and one third reported rashes or skin irritation. Less than one in ten said AXT officials had warned them arsenic is dangerous, and just eleven percent said they'd received training on how to handle gallium arsenide.

But screening workers once is hardly adequate. Arsenic typically takes a long time to trigger cancer, and AXT's workers won't know the true extent of the damage for years. Most have no health insurance, and Chan and a group of former workers spent most of last year badgering AXT executives to meet with them and hear their demands for cancer monitoring and treatment. Chan says company officials finally met with them in December, but cut off communication seven months later. She produced a letter dated June 20 and signed by AXT acting director of human resources Kathleen Kane, stating "We do not believe that any future meeting with you would be of benefit."

When asked to comment, AXT's public-relations outfit Stapleton Communications faxed a statement that claimed company executives had agreed to provide former employees with a free medical exam, but only 33 had taken them up on their offer. "AXT remains committed to the health of its current and former employees," the statement summarized.

But for Chan and many former workers, nothing short of long-term care for any future cancer can begin to make up for AXT's past misdeeds. Roughly twenty workers gathered outside the Alameda County District Attorney's office last week and demanded Tom Orloff take legal action against the company. Susan Torrance, the deputy district attorney charged with handling the case, says that because so much time has elapsed since AXT's arsenic contamination, and because state law barely addresses the issue of carcinogens in the workplace, there may be nothing they can do.

Still, AXT's poisoned workers have come a long way since 2004. Eighteen months ago, they were a motley collection of exhausted, anonymous, powerless immigrants. Today, thanks to their own hard work, they know what was done to them and will make sure the rest of the world knows it as well. As employees told the press their stories under the hot sun last week, Fei Ying Zhao quietly took her place in the back of the crowd. After this paper first reported her story, Zhao retained the services of Mandy Hawes, one of the nation's leading attorneys on workplace toxins in the semiconductor industry, who spent years suing IBM on behalf of dozens of workers.

Zhao became pregnant again a few months after the company fired her, and after spending nine months far away from arsenic dust, she gave birth to a healthy daughter. Finally, AXT had done her a favor.

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