On October 15, Ahn Cheol-soo, South Korea’s first-ever formidable independent Presidential candidate, visited a former Samsung employee who has been in a hospital sickbed for seven years for the brain tumors that she believes have developed while working in the chipmaker’s cleanroom.
Ahn, the fifty-year-old antivirus software entrepreneur-turned Presidential contender, visited Han Hye-kyung, the former Samsung chip-line worker who has been effectively bed-bound since 2005 when she underwent her first surgery to remove brain tumors.
After one-hour talks with Han and her family, Ahn endorsed a SHARPS petition repealing legal requirements for employees to prove clear causal links between their medical and working conditions in order to receive workers compensation. The requirements effectively impede workers from successfully petitioning for workers compensation.
Legal loopholes and lax government oversight have made the world’s 11th largest economy a dangerous place to work. In 2007, only seven of about 6,700 cancer-related requests for workers compensation were granted. In 2011, nine in every 100,000 workers were killed on their jobs—the third-largest workplace fatalities among the OECD countries.
In South Korea, campaigns for December presidential elections have turned into national debate on ways to harness the ubiquitous economic and political power of the chaebols, or family-controlled conglomerates, such as Samsung. Yet, it is a very unusual move even for a Presidential hopeful to express support for SHARPS and Samsung victims, as the country’s largest conglomerate is seen above the law and public criticism.
Ahn is one of a small breed of entrepreneurs who worked his way to the top by challenging the influence of the chaebol. Over the past twenty years, Ahn founded and built AhnLab into the country’s biggest software safety provider, while resisting international takeover bids and fighting off attempts by Samsung and other chaebols to relegate his venture-backed startup into a sub-partner.
AhnLab still provides personal software free of charge even as it commands the lion’s share of the corporate software market. Ahn’s vibrant technology firm often finds itself in conflict with Samsung. Samsung is the only major brand that does not preload personal computers and laptops with AhnLab’s free software—a sign of the rivalry between the world’s largest electronics maker and the new entrepreneur.
Thanks to his entrepreneurial non-chaebol agenda and public image as a firm reformer, Ahn’s run as South Korea’s first-ever independent Presidential candidate is swaying the political landscape. He is now mounting a strong challenge to the once-invincible presidential bid by Park Geun-hye, the far-right candidate and a daughter of the dead military dictator Park Chung-hee.
On October 14, a day before visiting Han, Ahn announced a seven-point reform plan limiting the powers of the chaebols. He is not a labor candidate. However, it is significant that Ahn used his visit to a Samsung victim as the platform to reaffirm his pledge to reform the conglomerates.
SHARPS remains cautiously supportive of Ahn’s unprecedented move. “All Presidential candidates should show concerns about occupational disease,” said Kong Jeong-ok, a medical doctor with SHARPS. “They must go further than merely consoling occupational-disease victims or speaking of the need for reforms of workers compensation regulations.” She went on saying: “The candidates must pledge to repeal legal requirements for employees to prove ‘work-relatedness’ in order to receive workers compensation [for their occupationally caused medical conditions].”
It was 1999 when the then-19-year-old Han began work assembling memory chips at the Samsung plant in Giheung, South Korea. In 2001, she resigned from Samsung as her vision and posture began to deteriorate. In 2005, she was diagnosed with brain tumors. After several surgeries she is now partially paralyzed and verbally impaired. During much of the one-hour meeting with Ahn, she spoke through her mother Kim Si-nyeo. The following is an excerpt from the conversation:
Kim: Eight months into working at Samsung, her menstruation became irregular. After three years, it stopped completely. During that time, she had been seeing an obstetrician. She took medications or shots. These were not unusual among her colleagues.
Ahn: Were there many colleagues suffering from similar conditions?
Kim: Her condition was not exceptional. They [Han’s co-workers] often said they keep their obstetrician in business.
Ahn: Did she continue to see doctors?
Kim: Her working conditions were terrible. Samsung says otherwise. They had only forty minutes for lunch. Because they did not want go through the trouble of removing their clean suits to buy lunch, they took turns picking up rice rolls from a convenience store. And they ate their food in the restroom.