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.

Page 8 of 10

Don Tatzin has a number of responsibilities at AXT. As its chief financial officer, he is charged with balancing the books and keeping the company on an even financial keel. As the liaison between the company and its investors and the media, he handles all inquiries from Wall Street and reporters. Except, apparently, inquiries that bring up his company's apparent history of exposing workers to poison. Over a period of several weeks, Tatzin didn't respond to any of numerous inquiries seeking comment for this story. After a more pointed message was left for him explaining the story's content in greater detail, a public relations specialist hired by AXT finally left a message in return. "We do appreciate the opportunity to respond to, I guess, some of the questions that you have for AXT," said Leslie Green, a vice president at Stapleton Communications. "We are going to pass on the opportunity to participate in your article at this point, but again, I do appreciate the opportunity." Tatzin and his colleagues seemed to have no interest in explaining AXT's record to the public.

But Tatzin lives another life -- as a member of the Lafayette City Council, where he has enjoyed the respect and admiration of his community for two decades. On the morning of March 6, Tatzin joined several hundred friends and neighbors to cut the ribbon for Buckeye Fields, a $1.8 million Little League and soccer complex in Lafayette. It was a perfect day. The last of winter rains had given way to an clear, azure sky, and the sun kissed the wooded glens and creekbeds of this snug residential enclave. Beneath the venerable live oaks, an unbroken line of sport utility vehicles and minivans meandered up St. Mary's Road and stopped in the parking lot, where they released their payloads of boys in baseball jerseys and girls in Brownie uniforms. Children scampered underneath the arch of red, white, and blue helium balloons and played pickle in the outfield. It was a verdant, Caucasian slice of paradise.

Standing among the mothers and fathers of Lafayette, Tatzin looked a bit younger than his 52 years, fit and trim in his blue corduroys and hiking shoes, his sandy brown hair beginning to thin in front and showing a few wisps of gray. He bandied small talk with state Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, while women in fleece windbreakers laid out folding chairs and waited for the ceremony to begin. Finally, Lafayette Mayor Erling Horn stepped up to the microphone.

The Americana was in full effect, as this intimate community saluted its volunteers and spoke of what can happen when people of goodwill come together. One by one, the mayor invited leaders such as state Senator Tom Torlakson, Hancock, and Tatzin to stand beside him and receive the city's accolades. A four-piece band butchered "The Star-Spangled Banner" as someone ran a flag up a pole, and everyone stood silent, their hands over their hearts. A little boy threw out the first pitch -- at less than three feet tall, he delighted everyone by making it over the plate -- and the crowd broke up to watch the home-run derby. Tatzin wandered among the crowd, striking up brief, leisurely chats and surveying this blessed plot.

When approached and asked to discuss AXT's workplace safety record, Tatzin refused to discuss any element of AXT's history. "This is not my work time," he said, "so let me do my city thing." Asked when he might be available, he refused to answer and invited us to run this story without his company's perspective. "Go ahead, it's your choice," he said. "It's freedom of the press." With that and a few more remarks, Tatzin returned to kissing babies, shaking hands, and enjoying the sunshine.

A few days after this encounter, spokeswoman Leslie Green agreed to accept questions in writing. In response to seventeen detailed questions about many aspects of AXT's operations, she e-mailed the following response, which is printed in its entirety: "AXT has a strong commitment to maintaining a safe and healthful work environment for all of its employees," Green wrote. "The company monitors its work environment and its employees, including providing medical testing of those employees who work in manufacturing areas. AXT's health and safety policies were developed in accordance with federal and state regulations."

Back in Oakland's Chinatown, Fei Ying Zhao's life couldn't be any more different from that of Tatzin's constituents. She lives in a two-bedroom tenement above a porno storefront with her husband, her son, and her in-laws; its dark, narrow hallway is stacked with boxes of Huggies and Top Ramen. The kitchen serves as the only common room in her home, and a couch and a TV stand next to bowls of shredded meat and chopped onions stewing in a broth. Children's toys litter the linoleum floor in bright, primary colors. Cooking pots simmer on the stove. The air is thick with greasy smoke, and the cupboards are lined with aluminum foil. Zhao sits on the couch, dressed in sweats and slippers, her belly swollen in the eighth month of pregnancy. Her deformed son holds onto a table leg and sways back and forth.

Zhao had already lived through the one miscarriage and a cancer scare, so by the time she got pregnant again in mid-2001, she was more than a little nervous about working at AXT. Two months into her pregnancy, she claims, the ventilation system failed, and a pungent chemical stench began to accumulate in the workroom she shared with two other employees. When she complained to her supervisor, he gave her a flimsy paper mask to wear. Zhao's anxiety grew with the smell -- she describes it as worse than gasoline -- and she returned to her boss after a few weeks. In most departments, she claims, managers gave pregnant women employees a year's worth of maternity leave, because the workplace was simply too toxic. Zhao asked for the same consideration and even brought letters from her doctor. Her supervisor said no. "The manager didn't move her to the other department," Zhao's interpreter explained. "Because the manager said it's okay, you are not polluted. You are not touching the polluted things."

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