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 9 of 10

When she pressed the issue, her supervisor gave her a Material Safety Data Sheet, which explained, in both Chinese and English, the potential health effects of gallium arsenide. With her ninth-grade education, Zhao had no hope of understanding it; she didn't even recognize the chemical symbol for arsenic. Nor did she realize the legal import of the following phrase printed in the center of the sheet: "American Xtal Technology assumes no liability in connection with any use for the products discussed, and it makes no warranty in that respect. The user must assume full responsibility for all required safety measures in the use of these materials."

Zhao was out of options, so she stayed right where she was and inhaled the stale, acrid air eight hours a day. In February, 2002, her water broke five weeks early, and she was rushed to the hospital. Her son was born blind, and his testicles failed to descend. Less than a month after Zhao brought him home, seizures began racking his body. Doctors diagnosed him as suffering from an extremely rare birth defect known as agenesis of the corpus callosum -- in lay terms, the neural structure connecting the two hemispheres of his brain is missing. When this defect is associated with seizures in the first weeks of life, the prognosis is often severe mental retardation. Zhao's son may never dress or clean himself, understand social cues, or be capable of abstract thought.

Zhao has been trying to sue the company for allegedly causing her son's disorder, but she hasn't exactly had time to focus. Her son recently had surgery to lower his testes into his scrotum, but it didn't work, and he'll have to go under the knife again. The company laid her off five months after her son was born, and she has been scrambling to get a job before her unemployment insurance runs out. Her husband works as a stock boy in a hardware store, her father-in-law in a construction company, and her mother-in-law in a garment factory, but the medical bills are mounting, and Zhao is running out of ideas. "The pressure is very much," her interpreter describes Zhao as saying. "Because now, the family's financial -- is not easy to get the financial problem solved."

Still, Zhao keeps trying to get her day in court. When her first lawyers walked away from the case, she immediately started looking for another to take his place. She may be just a country girl, but she is determined to exact a measure of justice from AXT's chief executive officer Morris Young -- the man who, she claims, reached out from nowhere and changed her life without giving it a second thought. "He doesn't have any sympathy on the workers," her interpreter explains. "He knows that the worker take the risk to work for him, but he never even send any message to her at all. ... She suspect that the company make the son like that. So she has to fight for the son."

As she talks, Zhao's son stops lumbering around the kitchen and starts to wail. His grandmother hefts him onto her lap and softly coos a Cantonese lullaby. She stares into his eyes as if looking for something, but they just roll back into his skull.


December 1986: Morris Young founds AXT, then American Xtal Technology.

July 1995: AXT earns four serious citations from state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

1996: AXT moves headquarters to Fremont.

June 1998: AXT's monitoring shows workers exposed to illegal levels of arsenic.

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