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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. has paid undisclosed sums to compensate about thirty victims of its occupational disease cluster after the victims signed a confidentiality agreement shielding the company from any further legal and financial liability, an opposition lawmaker said on Oct. 22, citing Samsung documents she obtained.
The agreement makes the victims liable to forfeit their compensation if they reveal the amounts of their payouts or seek any further legal action against Samsung, said Eun Su-mi, a labor activist-turned lawmaker of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.
To Pay Without Admitting Wrongdoing: Reparation or Charitable Doles?
What is more serious: that in none of the documents the company admits any wrongdoing, reducing the nature of its payouts for cluster victims to something of charitable doles and hush money. Samsung is not only breaking its earlier commitment to dialogue on the institution of publicly verifiable inspections for worker safety, it is also playing a group of victims seeking quick payouts off against the victims and families still seeking a sustainable solution to the cluster. Samsung’s scheme would likely further fragment and isolate the victims, hamstringing them via arbitrary payouts and their inability to further take on Samsung.
UN Special Rapporteur Speaks Out
On Oct. 17, Baskut Tuncak, a special rapporteur with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited a sit-in by SHARPS in front of Samsung’s corporate headquarters in central Seoul. Mr. Tuncak interviewed SHARPS activists and two victims of the cluster. “I am afraid that many workers at Samsung Electronics have fallen victim to priorities that place profits before human rights,” said Mr. Tuncak in his preliminary report. “Many victims were women who started working in the semiconductor factory immediately after high school.”
“Estimates of the total number of alleged victims who worked at Samsung Electronics ranges from ninety to several hundred, with the total number across the industry unknown,” he concluded.
SHARPS began the sit-in on Oct 7, after Samsung said it would indefinitely postpone negotiations with an arbitration body aimed at finalizing the demands of the cluster group. The advocacy group now demands Samsung’s top management, not its communication team, initiate dialogue within the timeframe set by the Mediation Committee, which is the arbitration body agreed to by Samsung, SHARPS and the Settlement Committee, another advocacy group seeking prompt payouts.
SHARPS and its supporters began a sit-in in front of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.’s corporate headquarters in central Seoul on Oct. 7 as the world’s largest technology company said it would put negotiations with an arbitration body aimed at finalizing demands by victims of the company’s occupational disease cluster on hold until further notice.
“There is a lot of disagreement between Samsung and SHARPS,” Baek Soo-hyun <Korean>, Samsung’s top negotiator, told Media Today <Korean> after talks with the Mediation Committee and SHARPS ended that day. “SHARPS demanded the 15-point recommendation by the Committee be revised and asked us for an additional financial commitment of KRW 15 billion a year.”
Shifting The Blame
Samsung was shifting the blame to SHARPS. The purpose of the talks was to further refine the Committee’s recommendations. Most egregiously, on Sept. 18, the company circumvented the arbitration process and launched its own compensation framework within criteria much watered down from the Committee’s recommendations.
Points of Contention
There are two major points of contention between Samsung and SHARPS. First, Samsung said it would set aside KRW 100 billion (U$1 billion) for victim reparations. However, that amount alone is unlikely sufficient to compensate even only the 293 victims profiled by SHARPS—and those yet-unaccounted for. And second, Samsung remains adamant against instituting a publicly verifiable audit and inspection system for worker safety.
After scuppering the negotiations, Samsung appears intent on paying its way out of the occupational disease crisis by offering some victims token compensation. This would be a feasible plan because Samsung could potentially exploit divisions in the campaign to undermine SHARPS and delude the public.
Over almost a decade, mountainous medical and legal bills have financially sunk already-needy victims of the Samsung cluster. In August 2014, a year into SHARPS’ negotiations with Samsung, some of these victims formed a separate negotiation bloc called the Family Settlement Committee, to seek quick payouts from Samsung. In September, some of the Settlement Committee received their first payouts from Samsung, according to a media report. <Korean>
The Settlement Committee was absent from the last talks with the Mediation Committee although it first proposed the formation of an independent arbitration body.
Some Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. TVs appear to consume more energy during real-world use than during official lab testing conditions, The Guardian of the UK reported Oct. 1, citing independent tests.
Official Tests vs. Real World
According to Samsung, the so-called “motion lighting” feature of its TVs reduces power consumption by reducing screen brightness in response to types of content. However, the feature only appears to function under official test conditions.
The Letter and Spirit of The Law
“The lab studies found that Samsung’s ‘motion lighting’ feature reduced the TV sets’ brightness – and power consumption – under international electrotechnical commission (IEC) test conditions, the paper said. “But under real-world viewing conditions, no reductions in power consumption were registered, making the sets’ power consumption, fuel bills and carbon emissions correspondingly higher.”
“Samsung is meeting the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law,” The Guardian quoted Rudolf Heinz, a project manager with ComplianTV, as saying.
Samsung’s Volkswagen Moment?
“The apparent discrepancy between real-world and test performance of the TVs is reminiscent of the VW scandal that originated in the US last week,”. The Guardian added.
Samsung has denied it is cheating EU compliance tests, claiming that the “motion-lightning” software is a standard “out-of-the-box” feature used on all its TVs. “Motion lighting is not a setting that only activates during compliance testing. On the contrary, it is a default setting which works both in the lab and at home; delivering energy savings and helping us to reduce our environmental impact,” the company said in a blog post.
Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. has launched a website for individual occupational-disease victims seeking compensation from the company, hammering a nail in the coffin of prospects for sufficient payouts for the company’s victims, and for publicly verifiable safety measures to keep future tragedies from happening.
“Compensation will be made based on principles and criteria little changed from the recommendations made by the Mediation Committee July 23,” Samsung said Sept 18 in a press release announcing the website’s launch. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Here are the details of Samsung’s scheme:
- Samsung is accepting petitions for compensation only by year-end, preempting future victims who would be diagnosed with an occupational disease after a lengthy latency period;
- Samsung employees who departed from the company before Jan. 1, 1996 are not eligible to compensation although they more likely worked under more hazardous working conditions;
- Samsung narrowly and vaguely defines “eligible contract workers” as ones “regularly doing certain particular jobs as part of regular contractors in residence,” making it possible for it to arbitrarily deny compensation;
- Samsung ditches a recommendation by the Mediation Committee by not compensating for miscarriages or infertility—despite the facts that: 1) it is widely confirmed in many studies that working in semiconductor labs would increase the possibility of such abnormalities; and 2) the company says it will compensate victims even when there is no clear causal link between their diseases and working conditions.
- Samsung reduces the eligible latency period for breast cancer, brain tumors, leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myelomatosis to ten years from the Mediation Committee’s recommended fourteen years;
- Samsung pays compensation after deducting any form of payout made to the victim related to his occupational disease such as post-employment medical and funeral subsidies; and
- All in all, Samsung’s scheme lacks transparency and accountability in determining payouts.
With the compensation scheme, Samsung believes it can deal a blow to the eight-year campaign by SHARPS for the occupational disease victims. Five of the six families of the Settlement Committee, a group split from SHARPS on Aug. 14, have agreed to the compensation scheme. Some of these families have begun to contact other victim families, most of whom in dire economic need, to bring them into the scheme.
As of date, SHARPS has profiled 293 former Samsung workers who contracted some form of blood disorder. One hundred and six of them are now dead.