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December 27, 1999
Indian Scientists File Complaints Against Top Defense Laboratory in America
J M Shenoy
Sam Mukherji says he has not been subjected to racial slurs or statements that his Indian nationality would disqualify him for top jobs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
But when his supervisor suggested about five years ago that he should take remedial courses in English in order to qualify for promotions, Mukherji, who has engineering degrees from India and America, gave up.
Last week, he joined eight other Asian American scientists and engineers including two Indians, in filing complaints with California State, alleging they are paid less than their white counterparts. The complaints also included the problem with promotions.
If the complaints are not resolved, the complainants could go to court.
The lab is run by the University of California which has refuted the charges. UC spokesman Rick Malaspina said he could not comment in detail because he is yet to see the complaints. "Any form of discrimination is not tolerated under UC policy,'' he said. "We would be prepared to defend any allegation of that sort.''
Mukherji said many scientists and engineers had complained to the internal division, but the administrators took a dim view of the complaints and asserted there was no evidence of discrimination.
Some of Mukherji's fellow scientists suggested to newspaper reporters that the case of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born nuclear weapons scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has given their superiors at the lab new license to continue discriminating against Asian Americans. Lee is charged with mishandling secret material.
Lee, a long-time scientist at the Los Alamos lab, has been fired and was indicted December 10 on charges that he transferred nuclear secrets to his desktop computer and to tapes. The case is part of a bigger investigation of sensitive information that ended up with the Chinese government. Lee has said he is innocent, and many top ranking Asian Americans in universities and publishing have protested against his arrest. They believe he was made a scapegoat.
Many engineers said the environment at the lab has deteriorated since the Lee affair -- and there was unwritten coldness against Asian Americans.
"It is not a friendly place for Asian and Pacific Islanders," said Deb Pal, an electrical engineer. But he wanted to change the system, he added.
"We want to make the lab a good place to work, not just for ourselves but also for future generations," said Pal.
Mukherji believes that Lee's arrest was a catalyst in filing the complaint but for several years, he and many others were wrestling with their minds and hearts how to go about lodging an open protest and complaint.
Mukherji and his colleagues also said the complaints were prompted in part by a visit last week from Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. Richardson had apparently heard about the unhappiness of Asian Americans at the lab and a few weeks ago set up a Task Force Against Racial Profiling in response to the Lee controversy.
He sent the task force to all three labs involved in nuclear defense research -- Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia-New Mexico -- to investigate allegations of unfair treatment of Asian Americans.
"We are well qualified, hard working, experienced in our respective fields and we are making less than whites in the same jobs," said Kalina Wong, one of the nine complainants.
According to the complaint, white scientists and engineers at the Lab make an average of $ 7,330 a month while their Asian American peers make $ 6,408 a month.
San Francisco attorney Brad Yamauchi, who is representing the nine, will have up to a year to investigate the charges and the state could award damages to the complainants if the charges are found to be true. He also said he could enlarge the complaints and include many of the 700 Asian and Pacific Islander employees at the Lab.
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