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A Toxics-Free Future


Working to Live, Risking their lives

Behind every single product and service are the unseen work and painstaking effort of a number of workers. From standing next to running conveyor belts to breathing in unknown chemicals that might harm their health, many employees work to live but at the same time risk their lives. As a result, some have become terminally ill, losing their right to work in a healthy environment. It is not the story of an underdeveloped country or the 1900s but is the reality that many Korean workers are facing now.

On August 16, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled that a worker who had developed leukemia had been the victim of an industrial accident. The worker, who is only known as Kim, was in charge of making television components in the product line and became ill after working for the company. Kim and his coworkers who also suffered similar ailments insisted that their illnesses were caused by a harmful working environment.

It was the first legal judgment delivered against Samsung Electro-Mechanics (SEM) and it represents a major landmark in the controversy surrounding the Samsung owners and their employees. Before this, acknowledgment of leukemia as an industrial accident had only been done for Samsung Device Solutions (DS) workers. 

About a week later on August 24, Samsung Electronics and the Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS), the organization working to gain compensation for the affected workers, agreed to unconditionally accept the mediated settlement proposed by the coordinating committee. The government also stated that if employees working in the semiconductor and display industry develop cancer, they would acknowledge it as an industrial accident without professional epidemiological analysis of the case.

The Long, Lonesome Fight

The fight between Samsung Electronics and SHARPS has been in progress since 2007, when Samsung employee Hwang Yu Mi’s death became known to the public. Hwang worked at Samsung Electronics, and within two years of working there, she had been diagnosed with leukemia. In April 2008, her father requested that the Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) acknowledge her case as an industrial accident, but this was rejected. After a long fight of six years, in August 2014, the court finally ruled in favor of Hwang and SHARPS.

However, despite Hwang’s case, industrial safety in Korea did not improve much. SHARPS has been working on several other cases, fighting for government acknowledgment. “There are still many victims who are waiting for a judgment rather than monetary reward,” said Kong Jeong-ok, an occupational and environmental medicine specialist who volunteers for SHARPS. Although there are laws and regulations to protect workers’ rights, there are still loopholes that create controversy.

Reports that are not Reported

According to Article 42 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1, business owners who require work that might be harmful need to have a qualified manager conduct Working Environment Measurement (WEM) assessments and report the results to the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL). WEM reports are a key factor in determining whether a working environment is safe for employees. Thus, the Official Information Disclosure Act requires that any information kept and managed by public institutions should be disclosed to the public. This means that both workers and anyone else who wants to access the reports should be allowed to do so.

However, some companies, including Samsung Electronics, refuse to disclose their WEM reports or only partially do so. Despite the requests from the government and SHARPS, the excuse these companies use is that they need to protect their trade secrets. Because Samsung Electronics is a leader in the semiconductor industry, both domestically and worldwide, it argues that revealing their technology may threaten their success. However, SHARPS believes there is nothing to fear.

“The report has nothing to do with the trade secrets because the assessment is conducted by external professionals who do not know any internal trade secrets,” said Kong. For instance, if a coffee shop is under inspection, the coffee beans and machines they use would be scrutinized. However, the report would not contain any information about how many times the coffee beans are roasted, the ratio of coffee and water, and the method used in brewing. Still, Samsung is inflexible about unveiling their reports.

A Regulatory Fence

Although laws exist to protect the workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Act does not ensure the workers’ rights to know what kind of substances they are working with. Business owners should offer WEM reports on-site, educate their workers about them, and run training sessions. Labor representatives have the authority to request what they need, but this is limited to what the business owners provide in the first place. “Laws protecting employees are comparatively passive. The only have rights to browse what the business owners give them and to receive training that is offered,” stated Kong.

It is also unfair that workers can only request what they need through a representative. “Of the many companies in Korea, only about 10 percent have labor unions. Those employees without one cannot exercise their rights,” said Kong. “It is one of the biggest limitations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. An individual can do nothing to learn about what environment they are working in.”

 A Light in the Dark

“I am pleased that Samsung Electronics will accept the results of the pending arbitration over the loss of life and health impacts on workers manufacturing their products,” stated Baskut Tuncak, a Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights regarding hazardous substances and waste, on August 28. Mr. Tuncak’s comments are not only an encouragement but also a reminder that the debate between Samsung and its workers is significant for human rights and industrial safety in general.

“The fight we are involved in started because we wanted to complain about an injustice and to exercise our rights, but now it is becoming a precedent that is consequential to all workers in all countries,” said Kong. The act of disregarding workers’ health and rights only to gain profit must be eliminated. Human rights do not have degrees of being more or less important. In the midst of this debate, the ceaseless effort of SHARPS and the public awareness of the issue will one day become the light in the dark for workers who are risking their lives even now.

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