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A Toxics-Free Future


Infirm former Samsung workers slam company response

Ted Smith, from IPEN Participating Organization International Campaign for Responsible Technology, is quoted in the following article:

by Max Kim

Victims and activists call for corporate accountability, not just payouts, as talks with Samsung resume 

SEOUL, South Korea — When she began working at a Samsung Electronics factory as a semiconductor assembly line worker at the age of 18, Kim Mi-seon says she was given a clean bill of health by company doctors. By the time Kim left three years later, she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which scientists believe is triggered by environmental factors. Now, the nervous system disease has left Kim nearly blind.

Even over a decade after being diagnosed with MS, 35-year-old Kim can only shake her head and say, “I didn’t think I would one day be unable to recognize my own mother.”

Kim suspects that her illness — which occurs at a rate of about four in 100,000 in South Korea — was caused by the toxic substances she was exposed to on the job. She is joined by over 200 other former Samsung Electronics workers who have reported that they suffer from illnesses they believe were caused by their workplace.

On Sept. 19, Samsung announced that it would begin accepting applications for compensation for the first time since the issue came to light in 2007, when 22-year-old Samsung Electronics factory worker Hwang Yu-mi died from acute myeloid leukemia. But for many victims, the move is not a victory. “I don't agree with it at all,” said Kim, who is boycotting Samsung's plan. “They're just plowing through with no regard for the arbitration process that they themselves agreed to.”

Though victims and their families have been fighting for reparations for Samsung for nearly 10 years, the company has denied any formal responsibility. Since 2007, 71 Samsung factory employees have died, according to South Korean advocacy group SHARPS (Supporters of the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry), and some, like Kim, are seriously disabled.

A third-party committee of experts established and appointed by Samsung and victims’ families has been arbitrating talks between the company, families and SHARPS, which are scheduled to reconvene on Oct. 7 — over two months after the last meeting in July 2015. Aimed at bringing about a mutually-drafted socially responsible solution, the committee's recent July recommendations include the establishment of an independent body to oversee future claims, enforce preventative measures and execute the terms of compensation.

But Samsung has rejected the recommendation, calling it “an inefficient method to solve this issue and not in the best interests of the families involved" in an email to Al Jazeera. The committee’s recommendations aren’t binding.

Victims and activists with SHARPS have opposed Samsung’s own plan, saying that the Samsung-led compensation committee is unfair and lacks transparency.

“Samsung has shown that they like to sweep things under the rug,” said Lim Ja-woon, a lawyer who works with SHARPS. “A watchdog aspect to the compensation process is an absolute must.”

Samsung has also selected stricter criteria for compensation than those set forth by the arbitration committee, which many fear will unfairly exclude certain victims. Under Samsung’s plan, workers who quit before 1996 are ineligible for compensation, and reproductive disorders such as miscarriages or infertility have been excluded from the list of recognized conditions. Victims with diseases known to have long latency periods, such as leukemia or breast cancer, are only eligible if diagnosed within 10 years — rather than the 14 recommended by the committee — of leaving the company. For qualifying victims, the company has set a Dec. 31, 2015 deadline for applications.

Once widely thought to be  a “clean” industry, semiconductor fabrication is a notoriously dangerous process that involves a battery of toxic chemicals and organic solvents. Many of them are untested, and others are known neurotoxicants or carcinogens.

Rare diseases occurring at an unusually high rate among electronics manufacturing workers dates back to the 1980s in Silicon Valley. Since then, similar “occupational disease clusters” have appeared in Scotland and Taiwan.

In South Korea, Hwang’s story sparked a nationwide grassroots movement to secure reparations, revealing more than 200 people with various workplace illnesses thought to have originated in Samsung’s semiconductor and TV factories, according to SHARPS.

At home, global tech giant Samsung is South Korea’s largest chaebol (family-owned business conglomerate), known for its spartan work ethic and far-reaching presence within the country. But the company has also been accused of questionable conduct, including operating above the law, and a reputation for bulldozing opposition. When Samsung executives came calling after Hwang’s  diagnosis, promising large sums of cash to quickly settle the issue, her father Hwang Sang-ki demanded the company's public acknowledgment of its hazardous working conditions. According to Hwang, the executive refused, saying, “Do you think you will be able to win a fight with Samsung?”

Though South Korean courts eventually sided with Hwang Yu-mi and another former Samsung Electronics worker who also died from leukemia, Hwang Sang-ki and many other families have made it clear that they want accountability and broad preventative measures — not just a payout.

"It's not about the money," said Hwang. "I want Samsung to acknowledge that there were safety issues and their promise that this won't happen again."

Samsung Electronics issued an official apology in 2014 but has been clear that this does not constitute an admission of responsibility. “Samsung’s apology on May 14, 2014 was made because of the length of time it was taking to address concerns of former employees and their families,” said Samsung Electronics in an email to Al Jazeera.

Although links have been established between various cancers, neurological diseases and reproductive disorders with the chemicals and organic solvents used in semiconductor fabrication, a definitive causal relationship between semiconductor manufacturing environments and such diseases has not yet been established. Researchers frequently report difficulties in obtaining data to carry out epidemiological studies, as companies argue that detailed information about their working environments are trade secrets.

In 2013, Lim Ja-woon requested a copy of an occupational health and safety assessment report on one of Samsung’s factories from the Ministry of Labor and Employment — the evaluating body — but found that several important passages had been redacted before delivery.

“Even in sections like 'accidents from the last three years' or 'supply of protective gear to workers' there was only the phrase, 'trade secret’,” said Lim. In 2014, Lim subpoenaed Samsung for documents on lead use, suspecting that lead fumes might have contributed to Kim’s multiple sclerosis. Samsung said they no longer had the records.

The company’s reluctance to disclose information has also hampered victims’ efforts to win compensation through the government-run worker’s compensation program. In South Korea, victims of workplace injury or illness typically file claims with the Korean Worker’s Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL), which compensates victims from a fund paid into by employers.

Repeated instances of Samsung barring victims and their attorneys from being present during routine field studies conducted to investigate compensation claims have caused many to distrust KCOMWEL’s rulings. “No other company has ever refused entry to me or my clients, but I have yet to step foot in one of Samsung’s factories,” said Kim Min-ho, a labor attorney who has been representing Samsung victims since 2008. “How can anyone trust a decision based on an investigation that relies solely on what Samsung revealed to investigators, but with no input whatsoever from the victim?” Currently, KCOMWEL has approved only three out of 56 claims. Twenty-four have been rejected on grounds of insufficient causal evidence, and the remaining 28 are pending.

Following in the footsteps of Hwang Sang-ki, who successfully sued to have his daughter’s claim approved in court, 11 others have currently filed lawsuits against KCOMWEL. In Hwang’s case, the court ruled that despite a lack of conclusive evidence, there is enough to believe that Hwang Yu-mi’s illness may have well been workplace related.

Although Samsung Electronics states that “The processes and controls at Samsung continue to meet or exceed semiconductor industry safety standards,” their track record has been troubling.

Multiple fatal gas and acid leak accidents at its Hwaseong plant in 2013 prompted a government investigation, which found 1,934 Occupational Safety and Health Act violations and severe problems with Samsung’s handling of dangerous substances and worker protection. A Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA) review of Samsung’s Giheung plant from the same year highlighted a lack of proper chemical disposal and leak detection systems, observing a widespread ignorance of safety and health issues.

“A lot of these workers — many of them only 17 or 18-years-old — don't know about the substances they're using,” said Dr. Kong Jeong-ok, an occupational health physician who works with SHARPS. “Some of them have told me that they just referred to these various agents as ‘chemicals’ because they didn’t know the actual names.”

Kim Mi-seon, who worked at Samsung’s Giheung plant from 1997 to 2000, said that she didn’t receive any safety and health education about the chemicals she handled. Her job involved soldering what would later become laptop parts with lead, and cleaning them with acetone and isopropyl alcohol.

“The lead fumes were horrible. You could smell it right through the protective mask and I remember thinking, ‘this can’t be good for you’,” said Kim. She said work would go on as usual even when ventilation systems malfunctioned. Currently unable to work, she relies on government welfare and charity to pay for her treatments as well as her living expenses. However, under Samsung's current compensation plan, she is eligible only for financial aid to pay for her treatments.

Forty-one-year-old Park Min-suk, a breast cancer survivor who worked at the same plant from 1991 to 1998, said that worker safety was often overlooked to protect the products. Like Kim, she said she did not receive any safety education upon being hired.

“Once we needed to evacuate the building due to some technical problem,” said Park. “The engineers were telling us to leave quickly because there were fumes, but we were instructed by our supervisors to safely pack up the chips before leaving.”

Dr. Kong believes that she was exposed to a number of toxic substances such as benzene, formaldehyde and hydrofluoric acid. Park thinks this was responsible for the widespread reproductive problems she observed in her female coworkers. “Almost everyone I know has had a miscarriage or two,” said Park. “Irregular menstruation was a given.” Diagnosed and treated in 2012, Park is now in remission, but does not qualify under Samsung's current compensation policy because her cancer was dormant for longer than the recognized 10 year limit.

Recently, international activists and academics have publicly rallied behind the victims. “Setting up an independent body is essential, but if [Samsung] isn’t willing to bring in outside experts, I don’t have a lot of hope,” said San-Jose based International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT) coordinator and longtime Silicon Valley activist Ted Smith. “It could make a huge difference not just for Samsung but for the global electronics industry. But that’s a challenge to their culture — they’re used to getting their way.”

In August, ICRT sent an open letter to Samsung Electronics CEO Kwon Oh-hyun, urging the company chief to abide by the recommendations set forth by the arbitration committee, with signatures from figures like Noam Chomsky and Charles Levenstein. To date, over 7,000 people have joined the campaign.

Activists like Lim and Smith emphasize the urgency of the South Korean cluster, but also warn that the problem is ultimately a global one, as manufacturers like Samsung move factories abroad in pursuit of cheaper labor. For workers in these countries, the South Korea case could be an important precedent.