The death of a young South Korean woman from leukemia after she worked in a Samsung computer chip factory as a high school senior stirred outrage nearly 10 years ago. Since then, industrial secrecy laws have so far allowed the electronics giant to continue business as usual despite a mounting death toll.
But recent action by watchdog NGOs and labour bodies, combined with recent media reports, is building pressure on the Korean government to lift a veil of industrial secrecy and allow investigations to proceed on scores of deaths similar to those that occurred at other companies in the US and Europe.
“This issue has dragged on for years. A good number of organisations and labour unions have been demanding that the industry solves it, as workers’ health is still under threat from hazardous chemicals,” said Chih An Lee, a global campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.
“The companies, big brands in particular, should no longer avoid dealing with the problem, leaving workers to face the consequence,” An Lee told Equal Times.
Citing protection of trade secrets, the South Korean government has reportedly refused to hand over information about which chemicals workers were exposed to at computer chip and liquid display factories, which could have allowed those workers’ families to receive compensation.
Just last week, South Korea’s top court ruled against families of ex-Samsung employees who were calling for compensation for work-related injuries, citing a lack of evidence.
The worker safety group Banolim, known as SHARPS in English (Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semi-Conductor Industry), counted 76 worker deaths – most victims in their 20s and 30s – and more than 200 cases of “serious illnesses including leukemia, lupus, lymphoma, and multiple sclerosis among former Samsung semiconductor and LCD workers.”
Dead at 22
Since 2008, 56 workers have applied for occupational safety compensation from the government. Only 10 have won compensation, most after years of court battles. Half of the other 46 claims were rejected and half remain under review, an Associated Press investigation reported.
Amongst those families seeking compensation is that of Hwang Yu-mi. As a high schooler, she bathed silicon wafers in chemicals at a Samsung factory. She died four years later in 2007 of leukemia at the age of 22. Her father Hwang Sang-gi, a taxi driver, launched a movement demanding the government investigate health risks at Samsung Electronics Co. factories.
In its investigation, Associated Press found that in at least six cases involving 10 workers, the government cited trade secrets as the reason to withhold the information. Worker accounts also revealed the use of child labour as well as offers of bribes to keep people silent.
Some progress has been made elsewhere in Korea. At Hyundai, the car maker must now get union approval before introducing new chemicals into its manufacturing processes. But Samsung’s workforce is not unionised, and the company’s supply chain is among those under fire from trade unions, which are calling for action in petition campaigns.
“The model of global supply chains is broken,” Sharan Burrow, secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said in a Huffington Post blog.
“If the government of South Korea, a G20 country who sit side by side the world leaders – President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister May – from the 20 largest economies in the world each year, cares less for its workers and denies fundamental right[s] then other governments must act,” Burrow said.
The supply chain issue is an ongoing problem within Samsung and the broader electronics sector, says an article on Yale University’s Environment 360 website.
“While direct cause and effect are difficult to prove, the South Korea situation presents striking similarities to patterns of illness seen at semiconductor plants in the United States and elsewhere in decades past,” wrote Elizabeth Grossman.
“Epidemiologists have found higher than expected incidences of cancers among semiconductor workers based on records from National Semiconductor in Scotland and from IBM in the US,” said Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry.
“The companies involved and the Semiconductor Industry Association have maintained that these studies are scientifically flawed,” Grossman said.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) website lists countries with chemical exposure limits, though South Korea is absent from the list. The country profile focuses instead on accident prevention.
The EU’s chemical watchdog, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), told Equal Times it “is not monitoring worker safety.” The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (OSHA) said it was “unable to provide specific information relating to an individual state or company, such as legislation, standards or statistics.”
But OSHA noted recent developments including the creation of a new EU Roadmap on carcinogens. In addition, the European Commission is proposing changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive to limit exposure to 13 cancer-causing chemicals at the workplace. OSHA said it is also “preparing its Healthy Workplaces campaign on dangerous substances that will run in 2018-19.”
The global trade union confederation IndustriAll has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the years about deadly chemicals at Samsung and signed an open letter last year calling on the company to determine compensation for sickened workers.
It wants the company to determine “how much transparency about hazardous chemicals is necessary and how to define legitimate trade secrets,” and how to use safe chemicals “in order to prevent future diseases.”
The open letter also warned: “If Samsung insists on controlling all of these key decisions by yourselves, you will fail to achieve the acceptance and labour peace that you profess to desire.”
SHARPS is planning a rally at Samsung’s Seoul headquarters on 7 October in Seoul, marking the first anniversary their sit-in at the Samsung D’light global exhibition space.
“The big brands must take responsibility to make the information of chemical use in the entire supply chain transparent, and move toward eliminating the most problematic chemicals from the production line,” said An Lee of Greenpeace.
“We need not only the governments to make policies to accelerate the progress, but also the power from every one of us as consumers, as people.”