Sunday, March 28, 2004

MUST READ: Put 'em to work, poison 'em, then move to China and fire their asses

This is an amazing and extremely disturbing article from the East Bay Express about AXT Inc., a Fremont, CA, semiconductor company which exposed its employees to airborne arsenic at levels four times the legal limit in 2000 and was issued "Willful" citations and penalties of $313,000 by Cal/OSHA, the California workplace health and safety agency.

Company employees were almost entirely recent Chinese immigrants who spoke no English. As a result of the Cal/OSHA inspections and fines, American Xtal Technology (AXT) moved its production operations to Beijing, China, where it now has a 1,000-worker factory doing the work that health and safety regulators in California would not allow.

Despite the reloccation of the major production operations, the company has been cited and fined three times since the 2000 inspection, including another set of "Willful" citations issued in June 2003, which are currently under appeal.
Every day, Chan poured industrial alcohol into dozens of boxes. She worked without goggles -- her supervisors did not provide any -- and her eyes were assaulted by the alcohol fumes and gallium arsenide dust. By the end of each shift, she and her co-workers would stagger to their cars, their eyes red, bleary, and inflamed, their vision so clouded they could barely see. At night, when Chan went to sleep, she says the pain felt as if someone were rubbing gravel and sand into the underside of her eyelids, or piercing her irises with little needles.

In October 2001, a woman on the cleaning crew asked Chan to look at her neck. "She asked if there are lumps in glands in her throat, and she went to the doctor the next day," Chan recalls. Her friend was eventually diagnosed with nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer of the upper respiratory tract. She never returned to work and eventually was laid off. Today, she can no longer talk above a guttural wheeze.

The following April, another woman on Chan's crew was diagnosed with rectal cancer, which has left her unable to control her bowels. In the space of six months, half the members of her team discovered they were staring death in the face. Chan confronted her manager and asked if something was wrong with the air, but he told her not to worry. "They said, 'We have people working here for ten years, and they're okay,'" Chan says. "I was very worried, but I still had to work, so there was nothing I could do about it."

As it turned out, Chan wouldn't have to worry much longer. In September 2002, AXT outsourced her job to a new factory in China, firing her and more than one hundred other workers. When she came to pick up her two weeks of severance pay, she says, a manager told her that unless she signed a statement promising never to sue AXT, she wouldn't get her money. Chan signed the statement.
It's a common story in Silicon Valley as we've seen from recent lawsuits against IBM.
Workplace toxins and outsourcing jobs are hardly new to Silicon Valley. Personal computers and the Internet continue to transform our lives in many ways, but the building blocks of the high-tech revolution have left a toxic legacy in Bay Area soil and drinking water. Santa Clara County, for instance, now has 23 Superfund waste clean-up sites -- the most of any county in America: Nineteen of them are directly related to the high-tech industry and involve poisons such as freon, benzene, and trichloroethylene. The 1980s saw a disturbing rise in the incidence of birth defects and miscarriages in certain Silicon Valley neighborhoods, and the cost of cleaning contaminated sites and settling the subsequent lawsuits has run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Moving production to China where AXT doesn't have to worry about worker health reveals the dark underside of globalization:
"The reason everyone talks about outsourcing is cheap labor," says Jim Puckett, founder of the Basel Action Network, a nongovernmental organization that tracks the spread of toxic chemicals across the globe. "But there are certain things that go hand in hand with cheap labor that no one wants to talk about. They include the lack of government occupational safety regulation, lack of tort law to redress a grievance, lack of labor unions. All of these things are part and parcel of outsourcing. You're not just taking advantage of cheap labor, you're taking advantage of marginalized and vulnerable populations, and the fact that you can poison people without ever having to face the music."
Much of the attention paid to the exploitation of immigrant workers focuses on the construction industry, but it's the same story here.
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."
Read the entire article. It gets worse when workers experience increased exposures after the company had been inspected and cited by CalOSHA and then appealed the citation which meant the CalOSHA inspectors could no longer enter the plant until the appeal is resolved. And this article, along with many others appearing lately on the plight of immigrant workers in this country also raises important questions about whether federal OSHA or state OSHA's have the resources, ideas or will to tackle these problems. More on that later this week.

Two other things: The CalOSHA inspector who broke this story, Garrett Brown, is well known to many Confined Space readers. Garrett is also the coordinator of the Maquiladora Health & Safety Support Network, a volunteer network of over 400 occupational health and safety professionals who provide information, technical assistance and on-site instruction regarding workplace hazards in the 3,000 "maquiladora" (foreign-owned assembly) plants along the U.S.-Mexico border.

I also want thank the author of this article, Chris Thompson, for believing that Americans should care about how American companies treat immigrant workers in this country and in the countries that they flee to. Chris joins David Barstow, Justin Pritchard and Andrew Schneider in the Confined Space Journalism Hall of Fame. If you appreciated this story, send him an e-mail. Reporters need love too.