Samsung took an unprecedented step on May 14, and publicly apologized to workers who developed cancers after working at Samsung semiconductor plants. Some of the workers have died from leukemia. Samsung vice chairman and CEO Kwon Oh-hyunpromised compensation to the victims’ families, but made it clear that it does not concede that Samsung is responsible for the illnesses or deaths. They also promised to stop intervening in the worker compensation lawsuits filed by the victims’ families.
The admission is the direct result of years of tireless public campaigning by the families of the victims, worker and public health activists in Korea who comprise an organization called SHARPS: Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry. Their cause gained attention with the release in Korea of two films earlier this year showing the victims and their families’ battles with Samsung.
One film called “Another Promise” tells the story of the first victim, Hwang Yu-mi, who died from leukemia in 2007 at age 23, and her father’s fight to bring this hidden issue into the light. Like many other Samsung workers, Yu-mi came to work at the Samsung plant in 2003, while still in high school. She was diagnosed with leukemia just two years later, and died two years after that. Other victims followed a similar path – they are largely young women who started work while in high school, and soon developed blood cancers and other illnesses not usually found in people so young.
While Samsung denied any connection between their plants and worker illnesses, the connection seemed obvious to Yu-mi’s father, a taxi driver, when her co-worker, another young woman working at the work station, also developed leukemia a short time after starting work there. She died a few months before Yu-mi. Over time, a disturbing pattern of blood cancers – leukemia and lymphoma – emerged at two plants. At least 35 workers from both the Gi-heung plant (where Yu-mi worked) as well as the On-Yang fabrication plant have developed these blood cancers, with ten dying since 2007. The documentary film, Empire of Shame, follows Mr. Hwang and other activists in their efforts to uncover other victims from chemical exposure in the semiconductor industry.
SHARPs formed to address this growing problem, and began keeping statistics on cancers, illnesses and deaths in semiconductor and other electronics manufacturing facilities in Korea. They say that more than 193 workers at various Samsung factories in Korea have developed cancer or other diseases, and 73 of them have died.
| Occupational Illnesses and deaths at Samsung manufacturing facilities in Korea
Data source: SHARPS
|Mobile phone, Electronic components||10||7|
|Samsung Electromechanics||Electronic components||12||8|
|Samsung Techwin||Camera, Robot, Other microelectronics||4||0|
|Total Samsung Korea||193||73|
|Other semiconductor companies Korea||50||19|
Companies need to look for the warning signs
Samsung responded to the workers’ claims by saying they were not using cancer causing chemicals. But the sad reality is that we often learn that chemicals cause harm (including cancer) after they are put into commerce – and the workplace is often the testing lab. Industrial chemicals are largely unregulated worldwide. In the U.S. of the more than 80,000 chemicals in commerce, only a few hundred have been tested. So it’s simply not adequate for manufacturers to conclude that just because a chemical is not on a list of harmful chemicals, that it’s safe. It’s more likely not to have been tested adequately.
With all of the blood cancer cases that SHARPs has documented, there were often warning signs that something was wrong. Fatigue, dizziness, bruises. Dermatitis or respiratory diseases. Miscarriages in young women with no family history of miscarriages. Birth defects in children born to workers. These illnesses and deaths reflect similar patterns experienced at IBM in Silicon Valley and throughout the United States, during the heyday of electronics manufacturing there in the 1980s and 1990s.
This is why we think it’s important for semiconductor and other component manufacturers using such highly toxic chemicals like solvents to do regular health monitoring of their workers, as well as workplace exposure monitoring, and to carefully track that information over time. Chemical exposure may not develop into cancer until many years down the road, but there may be warning signs if anyone is paying attention to them. Tracking the workers’ health problems (including reproductive health problems) and symptoms can point to patterns and possible links to exposures. We think this is the responsibility of any company using toxic chemicals, especially since so little safety and health testing is done on chemicals before they start using them. They also need to fully inform the employees of the chemicals they are using, as well as provide them full access to information about the potential harm from the chemicals and how to protect themselves. Ultimately, the manufacturers need to find safer substitutes for the harmful chemicals, or different processes that use safer chemicals and materials. But in the meantime, they need to play an active role in protecting their workers and the community from exposure and harm.
Samsung, government deny victims compensation.
One of SHARP’s primary roles has been to help the victims or their families fight for financial compensation for the medical costs and pain and suffering. And “fight” is the operative word here. Once the workers have been diagnosed and become unable to work, they (or their families) have filed claims with the Korean Workers Compensation and Welfare (KCOMWEL) for compensation and, in some cases, funeral expenses. KCOMWEL is a state run workers compensation program. But Samsung’s worker comp premium rates are linked to their number and severity of successful claims so Samsung has encouraged KCOMWEL to deny these claims, saying there was no proof that they are related to work. After KCOMWEL denied their claims, some of the victims and families have filed lawsuits to challenge the denials.
In 2011, the workers finally caught a break in the otherwise steady stream of denials. The court ruled in favor of two workers who had died from leukemia. Then in 2012, the worker comp agency (KCOMWEL) ruled in favor of a worker for the first time, and recognized that the aplastic anemia suffered by a worker as an occupational disease resulting from her work at Samsung Semiconductor’s Onyang factory.
But it’s still been a largely uphill battle. This Sunday, June 1, marks the seven year anniversary of when Mr. Hwang (Yu-mi’s father) first filed his worker compensation case with the government, which denied him any compensation. Mr. Hwang won an appeal of that decision with the administrative court, but the government appealed that ruling, so it’s now before the High Court in Korea. Samsung formally intervened on behalf of KCOMWEL, assigning attorneys to help with the appeal against Mr. Hwang’s case. Samsung’s announcement earlier this month included a statement that the company will stop this kind of intervention in these cases.
Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, an MD with the Korean Institute of Labor Safety and Health, and an active participant in SHARPs. She told us that Mr. Hwang continues this difficult and emotionally draining fight primarily to help others in the same situation. “He really wants Yumi’s case to be recognized and compensated as occupational disease by the law, because there are many other workers from different factories from Samsung suffering from occupational illness.”
 Int J Occup Environ Health. 2012 Apr-Jun;18(2):147-53. doi: 10.1179/1077352512Z.00000000019. “Leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in semiconductor industry workers in Korea,” Kim I1, Kim HJ, Lim SY, Kongyoo J. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22762495 (subscription required)