The AXT Way 

Meet Xuan Wen Li. Fremont semiconductor firm AXT, Inc. poisoned him with arsenic, then fired him - just as it did with up to 500 other Chinese immigrants.

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Young Shin, the executive director of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, says employers hire workers such as Zhao precisely because they speak little or no English and know nothing of their legal rights. "It's not an accident that certain industries employ Asian females with no or limited English," Shin says. "It's institutional; it's a design to hire certain targeted populations. You're talking about immigrants who do not have networks to assert their rights, so it's an easy target for them. Second, this being the US, a monolingual society, when you don't speak English it's hard to get information about your rights. So you're targeting a population that's easy to exploit."

In fact, most of the twenty or so former AXT employees contacted for this story refused to speak altogether and immediately hung up the phone. But one woman spoke long enough to tell a story about the way that managers treated workers who complained or got sick on the job. After working at AXT for around eighteen months, she says, her menstrual flow became alarmingly heavy, and something seemed wrong with one of her hands. Her physician said her health problems were clearly work-related, but when she complained to her supervisors, they denied any responsibility. In addition, she says, they forced her to sign a statement affirming that none of her health problems had anything to do with her job.

Another employee says that a sense of foreboding spread among the workers as gallium arsenide accumulated in the factory air, and alarms forced managers to evacuate the building. "They had complaints in the other departments," she says through an interpreter. "They'd talk to the manager, that the air is not clear, making them cough. There was never answer from the supervisor. ... I remember soon after I started working there; the government came to inspect. The employee said, 'It's a good thing the government only came by to inspect the water today. If they inspected the air, things would be bad.' So I think, 'Oh, this dangerous.'"

Still, employees such as Fei Ying Zhao shrugged their shoulders and kept at the job. Zhao worked in a small room with two other women, placing gallium arsenide wafers into a machine that made sure each piece met company specifications. For hours at a time, she handled the freshly cut wafers without a respirator. After a few months, she met a young man on the job, got married, and moved in with him and his parents in a cramped tenement in Oakland's Chinatown. In July 2001, Zhao went to see a doctor for a routine physical. Almost immediately after the visit, Zhao got an alarmingly heavy menstrual period. A few days later, she got a phone call. "The doctor say to call her, 'Congratulations, you are pregnant,'" her interpreter explained during an interview. "And she say, 'No, I was bleeding. '" Zhao had miscarried.

On January 24, 2000, the company's casual handling of arsenic finally came to the government's attention. Someone placed a phone call to the Fremont Fire Department; There's something wrong with the air at AXT, the caller said. Fire officials referred the complaint to the Oakland office of the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, where it landed on the desk of "industrial hygienist" Garrett Brown.

Brown has a Jim Hightower, Texas-populist look to him; he's the sort of bureaucrat who shows up for work in jeans and cowboy boots. For the next thirteen months, he would be AXT's worst nightmare, peering into every chemical drum and ingot-slicing workstation, unearthing the company's secrets. Brown declined to be quoted for this story, but the massive file he compiled on AXT paints a portrait of a methodical, patient man.

On February 4, 2000, he arrived at AXT's factory and requested records of all company monitoring of airborne inorganic arsenic in the facility. The results were dismaying, to say the least. According to AXT's internal reports, which dated back to 1998, an employee named Hua Tang Guo had been exposed to 4.6 times the maximum permissible level of arsenic. Kang Lin had been exposed to arsenic at a level 4.5 times the legal limit; Paul Baldo was exposed at 4.3 times the limit, and Song Yang Liu worked in an area dusted with arsenic at levels 3.9 times the limit. One employee, David Almar, had been exposed to arsenic dust at 21 times the maximum permissible limit.

Four days later, Brown returned to AXT, accompanied by a doctor and a Mandarin-language interpreter. Over the course of two days, they toured the plant, conducted "wipe sample" tests for arsenic dust in the workplace, interviewed employees, and tested the air. "The wipe samples are sent for analysis and the results indicate widespread contamination of desks, benches, and other work areas," Brown later wrote. On February 22, the airborne test results came back, showing that several employees had been exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic, with one worker's station testing at four times the legal limit. Brown concluded that substantial parts of the factory were contaminated. For at least eighteen months, company air quality indicated, AXT's supervisors had known their employees were being poisoned, but did virtually nothing to stop it. Brown shut down the plant that very day.

Company managers then spent four days scrubbing the facility from top to bottom, and Brown agreed to reopen the plant. AXT safety director Jeff Shapiro agreed to take several preventive measures, including monitoring factory air more frequently, cleaning the factory daily, setting up a medical surveillance program, and hiring more safety staff. The government's move sent a chill through the rank and file on the factory floor, and workers told each other to keep quiet if they wanted to keep their jobs. "The colleagues said don't talk about this, or they might get laid off," one employee says. "They are kind of intimidated, so they don't really talk about it."

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