Former Samsung worker’s death from cancer at 22 kicked off campaign

According to the report of an investigation by Associated Press, the authorities in South Korea allowed Samsung, the country’s largest family-controlled conglomerate, to withhold crucial information about the chemicals its workers are exposed to at its computer chip and display factories.

An independent worker safety group has documented more than 200 cases of serious illnesses, including leukaemia, lupus, lymphoma and multiple sclerosis, among former Samsung semiconductor and LCD workers.

Seventy-six have died, most in their 20s and 30s.

It is extremely difficult for workers to get compensation for occupational diseases from the South Korean government, and without details of their exposure to toxins in their workplaces it is almost impossible.

“In a situation where people’s lives are at stake, [Samsung] brought uninformed kids from the countryside and acted like money is everything, using them as if they were disposable cups,” said Park Min-sook, 43, a former Samsung chip worker and breast cancer survivor.

In 2007, Hwang Yu-mi, a former Samsung worker at the company’s Gijeung semiconductor plant died of leukaemia aged 22. Her father, Hwang Sang-gi, has campaigned on behalf of Samsung workers ever since, launching a movement seeking independent inspections of Samsung factories. Hwang told the Associated Press that the company once offered him 1 billion won ($914,000) in exchange for his silence.

“The idea was to deny her illness was an occupational disease and to leave me without any power to fight back,” said Hwang,

Since 2008, 56 workers have applied for occupational safety compensation from the South Korean government. Only ten have won compensation, most after years of court battles. Half of the other 46 claims were rejected and half remain under review.

People who have claimed that they became ill because of work they did for other major South Korean manufacturers, including Hyundai Motor, have received help from their unions in advancing their claims. Hyundai Motor now must get union approval before introducing new chemicals into its manufacturing processes.

Samsung has consistently rejected calls for the establishment of a union among its workforce; while the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) puts South Korea as a whole at the same level for workers’ rights as Colombia, Belarus, China, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine and Zimbabwe as a country with no guarantee of rights at all.

The IndustriALL global union has publicly condemned Samsung for its union-busting tactics and its local affiliate, the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU), has called on South Korean President Park Geun-hye to take immediate measures to put a stop Samsung’s repressive labour policies and to ensure it takes part in collective bargaining with the KMWU local to implement a living wage and a collective agreement.

In 2015 IndustriALL was one of the signatories to an open letter to Kwon Oh-hyun, CEO of Samsung Electronics, demanding that the company adopts the recommendations of an independent Mediation Committee that would address the issues around the use of hazardous chemicals, health and safety monitoring, and compensation for those workers affected by exposure to chemical hazards. All IndustriALL’s approaches have so far been unsuccessful.

Trade secrets over workers’ health

In at least six cases involving ten workers, Samsung’s justification for withholding information about hazardous chemicals was the protection of trade secrets. Court documents and interviews with government officials, workers’ lawyers and their families show that Samsung often cites the need to guard trade secrets when it asks government officials not to release such data.

“Our fight is often against trade secrets. Any contents that may not work in Samsung’s favour were deleted as trade secrets,” said Lim Ja-woon, a lawyer who has represented 15 sick Samsung workers.

Lim’s clients have been unable to get access to full reports on facility inspections, produced by third parties to comply with South Korean law, but which remain the property of Samsung. Heavily edited excerpts of some independent inspections can be found in some court rulings, the lawyer said.

South Korean law bars governments and public agencies from withholding corporate information needed “to protect the lives, physical safety, and health” of individuals on the grounds of trade secrets, but there are no penalties for violations. Lim said that the law on occupational disease compensation also obligates Samsung to give workers the data they need to make claims.

Government officials openly say corporate interests take priority, that evaluating trade-secrets claims is difficult, and that they fear being sued for sharing data against a company’s will.

“We have to keep secrets that belong to our clients,” said Yang Won-baek, of the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA). “It’s about trust.”

Asked why he used the word “clients” to describe companies his government agency helps regulate, Yang said it’s probably because he treats those companies “as I treat clients”.

He said the companies KOSHA evaluates also review the agency, and the finance ministry considers those reviews when it sets agency budgets.

When asked for comment, Samsung issued a statement to the Associated Press saying it never “intentionally” blocked workers from accessing information and that it is transparent about all chemicals it is required to disclose.

It also said there was no case where information disclosure was “illegally prevented”.

However, documents from courts and the labour ministry show that as recently as last year, Samsung asked the government not to disclose details of chemical exposure levels and other inspections—even at the request of judges for use in workers’ compensation lawsuits.

In a letter to regulators signed by the company’s chief executive, Samsung said that if factory details including “types and volumes of substances” were released for a workers’ compensation case, “it is feared that the technology gap with rivals at home and overseas would be reduced and our company’s competitiveness would be lowered. For that reason they are trade secrets that we treat strictly as secrets, we request not to disclose.”

‘Rigorous’ management

Although the company no longer omits lists of chemicals as it did in Hwang Yu-mi’s case, it has recently withheld details about exposure levels and how its chemicals are managed.

Samsung states on its website that its chemical management system is “rigorous” and “state-of-the art”. It has had “real-time, 24/7 chemical monitoring” in all facilities since 2007, the year the government began inquiries into Yu-mi’s death.

Yet Samsung began monitoring some toxic by-products in the air only after a 2012 inspection detected benzene and formaldehyde ‒ both known carcinogens ‒ at its chip factories.

Baik Soo-ha, a Samsung Electronics vice president, told the AP that Samsung has redacted trade secrets in documents given to individuals only when their requests appeared not “purely” meant to determine occupational diseases.

“We have a right to protect our information from going to a third party,” he said. Baik did not elaborate on what sort of ulterior motives Samsung believes might be behind some requests.

More details and action

This story is an edited version of an Associated Press release published on the Al Jazeera website. Click here to read the original.

In August, a campaign to get Samsung to pay compensation to “the workers who died in your factories” was launched by Sum of Us. Click here to sign the petition.

IndustriALL signs an open letter to Samsung. Click here to read the story.

ITUC Global Rights report, 2016. Click here to download.

Samsung responds to accusations of endangering the health and lives of its workers. Click here to read the story.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Gary Herman

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