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Four workers of Samsung’s supplier are now at risk of vision loss due to exposure to high-density methanol.

An ongoing attempt by Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. to outsource risk to an army of smaller contractors has proven dangerous as four workers are now at risk of losing vision due to exposure to gasified methanol while on the job.

The four workers, all temporary employees in their twenties at a Samsung supplier, suffered irreversible vision impairment after using high-density gasified methanol as coolant while edging aluminum clad circuits for smartphones, according to Solidarity For Workers’ Health, a Seoul-based advocacy group.  The employer did not provide even basic protective gear such as gloves.

Due to legal considerations, the advocate did not disclose the name of the employer, which is a subcontractor of one of Samsung’s army of outsourcers.  Nor did the Ministry of Employment and Labor, which on Feb. 5 said it has suspended the operations of the contractor in the city of Bucheon, about 25 kilometers south of Seoul.

Illegal Outsourcing and Low Wages

Two of the four victims, a man and the only woman, both 29 years old, are now at risk of complete blindness.  A 25-year-old victim has lost vision in the left eye and impaired in the right.  A 20-year-old victim has yet to be fully diagnosed for acute vision loss.

All four victims were employed on a short-term basis of about six months–an outlawed practice increasingly flouted by employers as the government has been stepping up efforts to repeal the ban on short-term outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.

The victims got the jobs through daily laborer agencies and earned about  5,700 won, or U$4.71, an hour,  about a dime higher than the country’s mandated minimum wage of 5,580 won, U$4.61–compared with South Korea’s per capita GDP of U$24,565.

Outsourcing Risk; Shirking Responsibility 

For Samsung, outsourcing is not just about cost rationalization.  Rather, it is more about shirking corporate responsibility by outsourcing risk.

The world’s largest technology company even outsources first response for worksite accidents.  In Jan. 2013 when two separate incidents left one worker dead and four injured at Samsung’s semiconductor plant, it turned out that the company hired an outside first-response firm which in turn outsourced jobs to a smaller contractor.

Samsung outsources maintenance and repair services to a loose network of contractors where working conditions are so harsh that a few workers have committed suicide in protest.  From Brazil, to China, to Korea, Samsung’s supply chain is riddled with abuse and misconduct.

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Samsung uses outsourcing to shirk corporate responsibility. The company even outsources first response for industrial accidents.  In 2013, two separate gas leaks left one worker dead and four injured at its semiconductor lab.

It is not that there is little Samsung can do about outsourcers’ labor practices.  The opposite is true:  the company can exert substantial influence on the way its supply chain functions.  For instance, last year, prodded by the government to help address youth unemployment, Samsung introduced a so-called “stepping stone jobs initiative” under which it will literally farm 3,000 new hires through its contractors after three months of job training for which it will pay for.

Samsung has strong sway on the supply chain, for which he has ultimate responsibility.

Samsung Continues To Dodge

SHARPS has been staging a sit-in at Samsung’s headquarters in south Seoul since Oct. 7, 2015.

After eight years of a fierce campaign by the advocacy group, on Jan. 17, Samsung finally made its first meaningful concession and agreed to an “ombudsman system” to make recommendations in the next there years to Samsung regarding worker safety measures.  However, it still refuses to compensate all occupational disease victims fully and transparently.  Worse, the company still rejects an independently verifiable monitoring system.

The South Korean government appears to be an enabler of Samsung’s ongoing negligence.  To date, the Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service has, only after long clerical and court campaigns, approved only four of the 74 petitions filed by victims with help from SHARPS.

In a rare victory for cluster victims, on Jan. 29, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of a petition by Lee Eun-joo, who died of ovarian cancer in 2012 after more than ten years of suffering.  Ms. Lee was diagnosed with the cancer after six years of gluing together silicon wafers with formaldehyde lead at a Samsung lab where she began to work at the age of 17.

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In a rare legal victory for Samsung-cluster victims, in January, South Korea’s court ruled in favor of workers compensation for Lee Eun-joo, a former Samsung worker, who died of ovarian cancer in 2012.

Emboldened: Benign or Malignant   

After playing off victims against one another with the lure of quick compensation, Samsung has emerged emboldened and began to turn away some victims who are willingly complying with the company’s confidentiality request to receive token compensation.

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The gate of Gunsan Girls Commercial High School in the city of Gunsan, where Samsung recruited busloads of graduates in the 1990s. At least four of such recruits have since been diagnosed with some form of cancer.

 

According to Media Today, Samsung turned down a compensation application by Park Soo-youn (pseudonym),  35 years old, citing her brain tumors were not malignant—despite the fact she now suffers from an incurable occulosympathetic palsy as a result of craniotomy.  Ms. Park was among the graduates of Gunsan Girls Commercial High School, from whom Samsung recruited in busloads for chip manufacturing in the 1990s. In 1999, she began to work at the Kiheung plant of Samsung, where she used bare hands to clean machinery and floors with chemicals unknown to her.  In 2001, she saved enough to study music at college.  By 2009, she became completely bedridden for her “benign tumors.”

To add salt to the wounds, a Samsung handler contacted Ms. Lee’s family after rejecting her application to wire 40,000 won, or U$32, as a reimbursement for the expenses.

 

 

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. placed a 1/3 page advertisement on Jan. 1 on the front pages of 26 major newspapers in South Korea, showing its ubiquitous influence on the country’s media.  The newspapers span the political spectrum, from far-right to liberal, and every corner of news coverage, from politics to business to entertainment.  Simply put, the 26 newspapers together constitute the country’s national press and the majority of online media.

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Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. placed an ad on Jan. 1 on the front pages of all major newspapers in South Korea.  Source:  Media Today

The Lion’s Share

Since 2010, Samsung has been monopolizing premium front-page advertisements for New Year’s Day as it continues to fare better than the other three of the country’s Big Four conglomerates (Hyundai, SK and LG), according to Media Today, a media watchdog weekly funded by the country’s largest media labor union.

With continuing declines in paid subscriptions, newspapers increasingly look to corporate vendors for revenues.  As of 2014, corporate ads made up 60% of the industry’s total revenue, according to Media Today.

Paradoxically, the more liberal a newspaper the more it tends to depend on Samsung as left-leaning papers tend to be smaller and more financial vulnerable than their conservative rivals.  The Hankyoreh, the country’s sole independent daily, earns 19.2% of revenue from ads from the country’s Big Four conglomerates.

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an image capture of Samsung’s New Year’s Day ad.

Pressure and Intimidation

Samsung can swiftly inflict pain on news publications.  In 2008-09, The Hankyoreh employees took home half their regular pay as the conglomerate withdrew ads following a series of exposes that corroborated allegations by Kim Yong-chul, Samsung’s in-house lawyer, who blew the whistle on the conglomerate’s massive tax evasion and vast network of bribery inside the judiciary and government bureaucracy.

Parenthetically, Kim’s allegations led to the National Assembly appointing Cho Joon-woong special counsel, who only investigated tax evasion allegations and stopped short of looking into the bribery network.  Cho’s son later landed a mid-manager job at Samsung, after multiple failures to pass the bar exam for more than ten years.

To Surrender Or Not To Surrender

Samsung began to place ads in The Hankyoreh again in 2010.  The small independent daily did not cave in—at least not entirely.  Between Jan. 2007 and Nov. 2013, The Hankyoreh ran a total of 154 news reports on Samsung’s occupational disease cluster, about ten times more than an average conservative daily, Media Today said, citing a survey by a media institute at Sogang University in Seoul.

However, Samsung’s intimidation often works, tacitly or otherwise.  In Sept. 2014, Electronic Times, also known as ETNews, ran a long apology and corrections about six months after Samsung cut off ads over a report about components in short supply for its flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone and pressed a $284,000 libel lawsuit against the reporter.

To Kowtow

Samsung’s dominance of the media market explains why many journalists and editors feel intimidated into kowtowing to the conglomerate and why there is scant press coverage of its occupational disease cluster and victims.

It also explains why many South Korean journalists often gloss over the facts and smear SHARPS and the cluster victims for whom it advocates.  It is typical of these journalists to depict SHARPS’s campaign as a menace to Samsung at what they claim is a time when Japanese frontrunners still outperform the conglomerate and Chinese rivals rapidly catch up with it.

Pushing The Envelope

In Oct. 2015, Han Ju-yeop, staff writer with ETNews, pushed the envelope even further by developing his own conspiracy theory.

In commenting on a report by Simon Mundy on the Samsung Cluster for The Financial Times, Han said: “The Financial Times, of the UK, acquired by Nihon Keizai Shinbun of Japan, reported groundless allegations, scathing South Korea’s semiconductor industry.”

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Han Ju-yeop, of ETNews, appears to believe that The Financial Times attempts to hurt South Korea’s semiconductor industry by attacking Samsung because the business newspaper is now owned by a Japanese company. Source: ETNews.com

 

 

 

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Lee Ji-hye, aged 29, died of lung cancer on Dec. 27.  Her death is the sixth this year and the 76th of the Samsung cluster tracked by SHARPS.

SHARPS and infirm victims of the Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. occupational disease cluster are ending the year on a sad note, following the death of another co-worker.  Lee Ji-hye, aged 29, died on Dec. 27, after three years of suffering from lung cancer.

Night Shift and Toxic Chemicals

In Dec. 2003, two months before her high school graduation, Ms. Lee began to work at a Samsung liquid crystal display lab, where she ran quality tests on LCDs and edged displays to size for seven years and six months, until May 2011.

During the 90 months, she frequently worked the night shift.  Ms. Lee’s job involved industrial-grade acetone and isopropyl alcohol.  She used chemicals unknown to her when cleaning and maintaining her equipment and the shop floor.  She was routinely exposed to chemical fumes when power outages or equipment repairs and replacements disabled the ventilation system.  A lifelong non-smoker, Ms. Lee was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013.

In July 2013, assisted by SHARPS, she filed a petition for workers’ compensation with the Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service. KCOMWEL ended its probe in November 2013.  Tapped by KCOMWEL, in April 2014, the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute conducted an onsite investigation into Ms. Lee’s labs at Samsung.

However, by the time the two regulators began their probes, the old lines where Ms. Lee worked were replaced with new ones.  In Jan. 2015, KCOMWEL turned down her petition, citing lack of evidence.

Perpetuating the Same Tragedy

Ms. Lee’s death is the sixth this year alone and the 76th of the Samsung cluster recorded by SHARPS.

Her tragedy conforms almost entirely to the deadly template set out by Samsung for the 75 deaths ahead Ms. Lee’s.  As with most of the 75 deaths, she was a bright and innocent high-school girl from a poor family in a small city.  As with the other victims, she was mature enough to forgo college to help support her family.

As with them, she believed a well-paying job at Samsung could help her save enough to go to college soon and start her own family someday.  Instead, as with them, she spent later years of her twenties struggling with a terminal disease—all because, as with her co-workers, she endured long working hours, intense labor, and nauseating chemical smells in the hope that her modest dreams could come true.

When the Samsung workers became terminally ill, both their employer and government turned a blind eye.

Playing Off One Victim Against Another

Ms. Lee’s death came at a time when Samsung has been attempting to pit victims against one another by refusing to institute an independently verifiable safety measure and by offering token compensation to some victims.  The world’s largest technology company refuses to pay the victims unless they agree to confidentiality, in effect reducing reparations to hush money.

Under Samsung’s scheme, no victim can seek any form of compensation from the company after Dec. 31, 2015—despite the fact that it can take many years for various forms of occupational disease to be diagnosed.

Worse, Ms. Lee is not eligible for the scheme because it focuses on certain types of blood and reproductive disorder and does not cover pulmonary conditions such as lung cancer.

Sit-in and Year-end Rally

Since Oct. 7, SHARPS and some cluster victims have been staging a sit-in at Samsung’s corporate headquarters in South Seoul. On the evening of Dec. 22, about 200 SHARPS supporters, attired in clean suits to represent each death of the cluster, circled the corporate headquarters, calling on the company to resume negotiations with SHARPS and cluster victims.

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On Dec. 22, about 200 SHARPS supporters circled Samsung corporate headquarters, calling for the resumption of negotiations.

 

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The Associated Press criticized Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. on Dec. 11 for its attempts to pay occupational-disease victims without instituting a publicly verifiable safety measure.  The news agency released the report as part of Big Story, its in-depth, investigative section.

“At issue is Samsung’s rejection of the mediator’s recommendations that an independent organization be established to oversee compensation and monitor safety and preventive measures at its factories,” the AP said, explaining why SHARPS, known as Banolim in Korea, opposes Samsung’s scheme.

SHARPS and its supporters have been staging a sit-in at Samsung’s corporate headquarters in southern Seoul since Oct. 7 when Samsung rejected the mediator’s recommendations and offered payouts to victims who would agree to confidential settlements.

“Banolim [SHARPS] has faced an onslaught of criticism in South Korea’s media that began not long after Samsung indicated it was unhappy with the mediator’s proposals,” the AP said of the Korean corporate media’s diatribe against SHARPS.  “Some news articles portrayed the advocacy group as a threat to the country’s semiconductor business at a time when Chinese firms are catching up to South Korean companies. Others said the campaigners wanted the oversight body established so they could get jobs.”

“Samsung said it has never encouraged any South Korean media to publish stories attacking the advocacy group, the AP added. “The conglomerate is the country’s biggest advertiser.”

On Dec. 12, Samsung released a news statement in an attempt to counter the AP report.

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On Nov. 13 evening, SHARPS activists and supporters rallied at Samsung corporate headquarters in south Seoul to call on the company to reinitiate the arbitration process with occupational disease victims.

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SHARPS marked Semiconductor Day, the industry’s anniversary celebrating its first annual exports in 1994 of U$ 10 billion in memory chips, on Oct 29 with protests and a round of petitions for worker compensation for seven workers who contracted occupational diseases while working in semiconductor labs.

Widespread Hazards 

Among the seven petitioners, four are former employees of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. or its spinoffs and the remaining three individuals were employed at SK Hynix Inc. and a contractor of LG Electronics, Inc. The spread of the illnesses demonstrate the widespread occupational hazards in the electronic components industry of South Korea.

The Old and The New: The Same Tragedy

The youngest and the latest victim is Cho Eun-ju, who died of Myelodysplastic syndromes, a set of bone marrow disorders, at the age of 22 in 2015, only two years after diagnosis.  She began to work at Samsung Electronics’ LCD display unit in July 2010, about seven months before her high school graduation.

In the three years leading to her diagnosis in Sept. 2013, Ms. Cho cleaned defective circuits with chemicals, a job that often required her to crawl under the equipment.  In 2012, Samsung Electronics spun off the LCD display unit.  Ms. Cho’s tragedy showed that working conditions had little changed although the separation made the unit the world’s largest LCD maker.

Lee Kyung-beum, 45 years old, the oldest petitioner, has a history in the same mold as Ms. Cho—but in a longer time-span.  Upon graduating high school, in 1986-1991, Ms. Lee manually removed photoresist with an etching solution in a Samsung lab limned with chemical smells.  In 2003, she was diagnosed with high-grade osteosarcoma in the brain.  It is extremely unusual for this rare bone cancer to develop in a brain.

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Spoiling Their Party

The new petitions show that the occupational disease crisis is still ongoing at Samsung and in the industry.  Also, the repeat of the same individual tragedy exposes Samsung’s disregard for labor rights and unwillingness to self-inspect worker safety, highlighting the need for independently verifiable safety measures.

After filing the workers com petitions, SHARPS activists mounted pickets and performances in front of Seoul’s COEX, the venue for a ceremony for Semiconductor Day, urging Samsung and other industry leaders to act for worker safety.

On SHARPS

As of Oct. 2015, SHARPS has profiled a total of 366 occupational-disease victims of the semiconductor industry.  Among them, 297 were employed with Samsung.  Out of the 366, 133 victims have died, and among the 133 deaths, 109 are former Samsung employees.

SHARPS’s rally at COEX on Oct. 29, Semiconductor Day

FT

The Financial Times Oct 27 ran a report about SHARPS’s ongoing sit-in and the psychological and financial hardships of the victims of Samsung’s occupational disease cluster.

“Seated on a plastic mat near her wheelchair, Han Hye-kyoung cuts a frail figure during her quiet protest at the foot of Samsung Electronics’ 200m-tall glass headquarters in southern Seoul,” FT Seoul bureau chief Simon Mundy said in his report, depicting the sit-in by Ms. Han, now 37 years old, who first developed brain tumors in 1999 when she soldered circuit boards with a lead-based paste at a Samsung plant.

244 Victims and 87 Deaths

“Lawyers campaigning for the workers claim there are 244 victims of rare cancers and other diseases that appear linked to hazardous conditions at Samsung, with 87 deaths,” Mr. Mundy said, citing SHARPS’s data.

“If Samsung doesn’t set up new safety measures, more victims will follow,” Hwang Sang-ki, the father of Hwang Yu-mi, one of the first cluster victims, told FT, explaining why he is protesting Samsung’s scheme to pay victims who agree not to pursue legal action and not to urge the company to institute independently verifiable safety measures.

Shirking Corporate Social Responsibility
“There have been signs of persistent safety flaws at the [Samsung] plants,” noted Mr. Mundy. “After a gas leak killed a worker at a semiconductor plant in 2013, a government investigation found 1,934 regulatory breaches at the factory. Samsung promised urgent improvements, but sustained two more major gas leaks within the next year, one of them fatal.”

“The long-running controversy has threatened the brand power of the world’s biggest electronics company by sales and fueled criticism that South Korea’s dominant chaebol conglomerates have shirked their social responsibilities at home while expanding rapidly abroad,” he concluded.

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