Watching Corporate Dogs:

Three reminders to think before you buy

May 1, 2005

Ever bought a car, a t-shirt, or a frozen dinner? Then you know how inextricably modern life is entangled with corporations; these days, it’s nearly impossible to get along without them. But Hyphen is calling out three companies with especially bad track records, whose policies have excluded and exploited the Asian American community.

Seeing White—Abercrombie & Fitch

We all know Abercrombie & Fitch for their kitschy apparel and ads featuring androgynous-looking white models—who look frighteningly related—tangled in provocative situations. But behind the kitsch and the just plain weird, A&F had a clear agenda—promoting their “Classic American” look.

That look? White, and if possible, male. This meant not hiring people of color who didn’t look the part, moving them to less visible, menial positions or simply firing them.

If you’re thinking that this campaign sounds just plain racist, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco agrees with you. A class action suit brought against A&F by nine of its former employees argued that A&F’s “Classic American” campaign was discriminatory. Last November, as part of a $40 million settlement, the court approved of the deal that required A&F to drastically change its hiring, firing, recruitment and placement practices.

Poisonous Chips—AXT, Inc.

AXT, Inc., a semi-conductor plant headquartered in Fremont, CA is a little-known corporation that in the past year has carved out a niche in the electronics industry right next to IBM amongst the shrewd and cunning. Boasting past and present clients like Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel Networks and the Department of Defense, AXT’s ubiquitous wafers have made their founders a fortune.

But AXT’s profits were built on the backs of the invisible underlings—most of them Chinese immigrants who knew little English and even less about their rights.

During the course of their employment at AXT, many of these workers started developing alarming physical ailments—difficulty breathing, nosebleeds, irritated eyes, nausea and coughs. The cause is believed to be the gallium arsenide (which when inhaled, takes the form of arsenic) found in the semi-conductors. Long-term exposure to gallium arsenide has been linked to bladder,
lung and skin cancer.

But this wasn’t news to AXT, which had already been cited by California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration several times for over-exposing their employees to the poison. The citations fell on deaf ears and to escape the reach of the U.S. labor code, AXT moved shop to Beijing—firing hundreds of workers at their Fremont production plant.

Vivian Chang, interim executive director at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, lambastes AXT for what she calls a classic case of environmental racism.

“It’s not too much of a secret that industries like the electronic industry go after a certain part of the labor market,” Chang says. “They’re guided by notions of trying to figure out where they can cut their labor costs.” These notions apparently include hiring unsuspecting and vulnerable Asian immigrants.

Sweatshop Conditions—Forever 21

Though a boon for teenagers and wannabe trendsetters, this inexpensive, trendy retailer is a garment worker’s nightmare. Nearly three years ago, 19 garment workers filed suit against Forever 21 for abuses including withholding pay, requiring that employees work nine to 13 hours a day and maintaining abominable working conditions including buildings infested with rats and cockroaches.

As part of their campaign calling for a nationwide boycott of Forever 21, garment workers and activists staged demonstrations, posted flyers, and picketed in front of the stores. Forever 21, in a display typical of playground retaliation, sued the nonprofit garment worker activists for alleged defamation.

Don Chang and Jin-Sook Chang, the company’s cofounders, settled the three-year battle out of court in December 2004, saying in a statement they agreed that “garment workers should labor in lawful conditions and should be treated fairly and with dignity.”

Sweatshop Watch estimates that 67 percent of garment workers in the Los Angeles area are still not paid minimum wage or overtime. missing image file

Writer Megan Wong, a former Hyphen fellow, wrote about racial profiling at airports in Hyphen #3. Justin Lew is a freelance designer originally from Los Angeles. He now lives in San Francisco.

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