Syrian loses opportunity at ASML – Thanks to trade war

ASML village
Photo credit: Alain Heeren/Studio040

After six months of applying for his dream job, he didn’t qualify because he had the wrong nationality. It happened to a Syrian electrical engineer who applied to ASML last year. “This destroyed me as a human being”, he says.

“My nationality has already brought me so many problems”, sighs the man who we will call Farid for privacy reasons (his real name is known to the editors). Without his (currently expired) Syrian passport, he would have been immediately hired at the Veldhoven chip machine manufacturer. Now the contract proposal was withdrawn at the very last moment because of American export restrictions.

After all no job

The application procedure at the chip machine manufacturer was, to put it mildly, erratic. Last spring, Farid responded to a vacancy for a test engineer at ASML. He was invited for an interview. He was open about it towards his employer at that time at the High Tech Campus, who had just offered him a permanent contract.

The interview at ASML was cancelled because no new people were temporarily hired due to corona. The company let Farid know that it would come back to him if the situation changed. In the meantime, his employer gave him a four-month contract extension.

A few months later, there appeared to be a vacancy at the chip machine manufacturer after all. Several interviews, a test and an assessment later, a contract proposal was made to start working for the department with EUV technology (extreme ultraviolet lithography; a technique for making microchips). Farid quit his job at the High Tech Campus. Then it turned out that ASML was not allowed to hire him at all. Export control regulation E1 threw a spanner in the works.

Sensitive technology

“For six months I made so many phone calls to the HR department, but they only told me a day before I was to sign the contract that my nationality was a problem”, he says. “ASML is a Dutch company, but somehow they have to comply with American law. I now work for an American company and there my nationality is not a problem at all”.

“Among other things, ASML produces machines based on EUV technology, which is also used in the US military”, says the concerned ASML recruiter, who does not want his name in the article (his name is also known to the editors). “That’s why America has forbidden us to hire people from certain countries to work with this specific technology, or who could gain insight into it. These are mainly countries that the U.S. is in a conflict situation with, such as Iran, Sudan, Cuba, North Korea and Syria”.

The recruiter himself was also only confronted with these rules at the last minute. “The Human Resources Department circulated a document internally that unfortunately did not reach me in time. In the three years I have been doing this work, this is by far the most annoying situation I have experienced”.

Risk of years in prison

“It is certainly not the intention of these export restrictions to exclude people because they are refugees”, says Martijn Antzoulatos-Borgstein, who worked for years as a compliance officer at the Dutch Ministry of Defence. He now works as an International Trade Compliance Manager and Diversity and Inclusion Vice President at Rockwell Automation. This is a supplier of industrial automation and information technology. In his work, he has to deal with the rules for exporting sensitive technologies and information.

“Lithography and EUV have been seen by the Americans as decisive technologies for maintaining or changing international power relations since 2018”, he explains. “Since the software for EUV machines was developed by an American subsidiary of ASML, the company has to apply for a licence from the US government. The latter checks whether ASML meets all the requirements”.

The company can get into huge trouble if it does not comply with these rules, he continues. “Unlike Europe, which also has export restrictions, the US enforces them outside their own borders as well. If the US discovered that ASML was knowingly violating the rules (causing unauthorised access to restricted information), it would have major consequences for the senior managers involved. In the worst case, they could be extradited and end up in an American prison”.

Double caught

Labour and migration lawyer Julien Luscuere points out that employers have the freedom to reject an applicant. “Only if that happens due to discrimination for which there is no justification you can challenge that legally”. He believes that in Farid’s case, ASML did not want to run any risks because of the US sanctions system to keep the, according to the US ‘rogue states’, such as Syria, Iran and North Korea under their thumb. “For convenience, then, every Syrian citizen is considered a spy, even if they have fled the country.”

The same applies to Iranians, he continues. “In many Western countries, it is very difficult for them to open a bank account, so they cannot apply for a VAT number or register a company with the Chamber of Commerce. They are doubly caught because of their nationality, while they fled their country for a reason”.

At the same time, Luscuere acknowledges that ASML would be taking a risk by hiring Farid. “If it came out, ASML could end up on a US blacklist, and at the same time the companies who do business with them. Companies like Samsung and Intel, who are happy to pay €200 million for an ASML chip machine, then also risk sanctions”.

“Untrusted countries”

However, the US export restrictions are there for a reason, Antzoulatos-Borgstein explains. “With EUV technology, you can make large quantities of microchips very cheaply in a short time. That can give a country an economic advantage, but there is also an increased risk of what Western eyes see as the wrong application. For example, between 2007 and 2012, certain technologies for encrypting information got into Syrian and Libyan hands via roundabout routes, with the risk that they could be used against the civilian population there”.

In order to get an export license for sensitive technologies, companies are not allowed to simply hire people from countries that the US does not trust. “These countries are marked for their anti-Western attitude and the pursuit of anti-American interests. There are examples of people who appear to be trustworthy at first glance and then slowly and with a clear purpose, move technology to what Western eyes see as a dubious party”.

In addition, ASML is one of the few parties in the world that knows how to use EUV technology in a commercially attractive and efficient way, Antzoulatos-Borgstein knows. “Two years ago, the US government used diplomatic pressure to prevent ASML from selling any more chip machines to China because they could make China too powerful. By designating EUV technology as critical to US interests, they were able to impose such strict export restrictions”.

US-China trade war

In the bigger picture, Farid is, therefore, actually also the victim of the trade war between the US and China. A year later, he is still struggling to deal with his rejection. He was assured help in finding another job, which he did not get. He was half-promised that he could work in another department than EUV, but no one came back to that so far.

Farid: “None of the e-mails I sent to ASML after my rejection were answered. None of the options I suggested to still work for them was responded to. Companies can apply for an exception to this rule, although it takes extra time and paperwork. Apparently, they were not willing to do that. If I had been rejected based on my qualities, it would have been much less painful”.

The recruiter involved acknowledges that ASML is partly responsible for this situation. “I tried to help Farid by seeing if there was another position available within ASML for which the export restriction did not apply. That didn’t work out. At the same time, the contract proposal made to him was not yet final. We always advise candidates to wait with quitting their jobs until the new contract has been signed”.

Accelerated passport procedure

According to Luscuere, an employer can sometimes still be liable if he has raised strong expectations. “A contract proposal may be legally non-binding, but the job was very clearly held out to him. ASML knew all along that the job applicant was from Syria”.

As a result, the company had a best-effort obligation to find a solution. Luscuere mentions, for example, they could have supported a request for special naturalisation with the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND). With such a request, Farid might have been able to obtain Dutch nationality within a few months.

Now he has to wait until his asylum status can be converted into a permanent residence permit and then into Dutch nationality. Then the American rules would no longer apply to him, and Farid could still work at the EUV department. Ridiculous, he thinks. “Your blood is your blood, even if you change nationality. In the end, I am the same person, whether I am Dutch or Syrian”.

Vulnerable position

Although this is the first time that Luscuere has heard of a case like Farid’s, he regularly sees how vulnerable the position of refugees or labour migrants is. “It does not matter whether they are highly educated or poorly educated; they encounter similar things. They often do not know their way around or are not well organised. Employers have a lot of power, which sometimes leads to ignoring agreements and regulations. Even if labour migrants know that they are being cheated, they do not always bring it up, because they are afraid that it will create new problems. As a result, there are even employers who make mistakes on purpose to keep labour migrants extra dependent”.

Some of the labour migrants get through a period of frustration and disadvantage before they acquire Dutch citizenship. Others return, often embittered, or move to another country. “They share their stories on social media, and that can be bad for the reputation of the Netherlands”, Luscuere says. “If this group were to go home tomorrow, we have a huge problem. Just look at the Eindhoven region, which is currently the real engine of the Dutch economy. Thousands of highly educated knowledge migrants live and work here”.

Decent excuse

In any case, Farid is still incredibly disappointed. “I believed in ASML as a company, but I feel destroyed as a human being. They pride themselves on diversity and employees of all nationalities, but that is just not true,” he ascribes.

It would have been better if they had appropriately apologised, he continues. “That has not happened. Nobody from higher up in the organisation sent me an e-mail to apologise for what happened. They knew my nationality from the beginning and yet I feel very hurt”.

This story was made possible by the ‘Stimuleringsfonds Journalistiek’ (journalism promotion fund). Dtv, Omroep (Broadcasting) Venlo, Studio040 and WOS Media work together on local investigative journalism.

Source: Studio040

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