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Archive for January, 2013

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A bird’s eye view of Samsung’s Hwaseong plant where hydrofluoric-acid leaks Jan. 28 killed one worker and injured four others. Samsung did not contact authorities for 26 hours after the chemical leaks although the plant is ringed largely with residential homes.

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. failed to contact authorities for 26 hours after two separate leaks of hydrofluoric acid gas killed one contractor and injured four others at its chip plant, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, in Jan. 27-28.

Fatal Leaks

On Jan. 27, about at 1:00pm local time, a 500-liter (132 gallon) tank at Samsung’s Hwaseong, Gyeonggi-do plant began to leak diluted hydrofluoric acid gas through a melted gasket, the independent newspaper Hankyoreh reported.  The tank reportedly leaked again at 5am the following day.  A total of ten liters of the acidic gas leaked.

Hydrofluoric acid, used to remove impurities from chip wafers, is a potentially dangerous industrial-grade substance that can immediately and permanently damage lungs and corneas.

At 11pm, Samsung called four workers of maintenance firm STI to fix leak.  The world’s largest chipmaker did not report the leaks until 3pm, about an hour after an STI worker died from exposure to the acid and four others were hospitalized for chest pain and rashes.

Go Unreported And Unprotected

Contrary to earlier press reports claiming that the dead worker did not have any protective gear save a mask, the 34 years old, identified by his last name, Park, wore a protective suit after inspecting the leak, according to a Yonhap News report.   The other four’s protective suits proved inadequate, as they all were exposed to the gas and were hospitalized.  Over the course of about nine hours, the five contractors struggled to stop the leaks with plastic bags, and to remove the melted gasket.

Exemption

Samsung did not immediately report the leak to authorities, in breach of regulations.  However, the local government of the Gyeonggi-do province has exempted the company from a higher version of safety inspections. On a regular round of inspections of local factories less than three months ago, the government failed to inspect the gasket that leaked Jan. 27, Newsis News reported.

Risky Outsourcing

The leak accident revealed that Samsung has been outsourcing safety management to contractors, despite being heavily dependent on hazardous materials in chip production.   It also showed contract workers are more likely to be exposed to hazardous conditions.  Last year, after a series of revelations of excessive overtime and irregularities at its Chinese contractors, Samsung promised to improve working conditions across its supply chain.

However, harsh working conditions are not limited to its overseas contractors.   In October 2012, SHARPS profiled Kim Ki-cheol, 27 years old, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia after having worked as a contract wafer operator at the Hwaseong plant since 2006.

On SHARPS

As of March 2012, SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and aplastic anemia after employment in the electronics industry in South Korea.   As of June 2, 2012, 63 of the 155 have died.  The majority of the workers, 138, were employed at Samsung Electronics, Samsung Electro-Mechanics and Samsung SDS—the three electronics affiliates of the Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate.  Among the 63 deaths were 56 Samsung employees.

Correction 1: The original version of this story said Samsung did not contact authorities during the first 15 hours after the leaks.  However, a Samsung spokesman on Jan. 28 evening said that the casket began to leak on Jan. 27 about at 11am.  The contract workers began to repair the leak at 11pm.    Samsung did not report the leaks for 26 hours after the leaks.   The post has been revised to reflect the correction.

Correction 2: The original version of this story cited a Herald News  report and said during its latest inspection of the Samsung plant four months ago, the government did not inspect the casket that leaked Jan. 28   However,  Newsis News cited  a government source and said the province government did not inspect the casket during inspections it performed of 28 plants in its jurisdiction on Oct. 11-17, 2012.  The post has been revised to reflect the correction.

Correction 3: The original version of this story cited several Korean press reports and said the dead maintenance worker did not wear a protective suit.  On Jan. 29, Samsung confirmed the 34-year-old known as Park actually wore a protective suit after protests by his family.  The post has been revised to reflect the correction.

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Photographs of Samsung’s occupational-disease victims were displayed at the entrance to a National Assembly hearing in Oct. 2012 (ohmynews.com).

After six years of campaigns and petitions over 56 occupational-disease deaths at the world’s largest chipmaker, SHARPS has agreed to enter dialogue with Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. over the question of compensation for the victims of the company’s blood-disorder clusters and their families.

“Samsung’s dialogue proposal is the result of six years of our ceaseless efforts,” said SHARPS at a press conference January 22.

“Samsung has treated my daughter’s leukemia as though it was a random disease,” said Hwang Sang-ki, who lost her daughter Yumi to occupationally caused leukemia at Samsung.  “They also treated me like a heinous fraudster,” said the 58-year-old taxi driver whose lone outcry for her daughter’s untimely death six years ago led to the formation of SHARPS.

“Because the public has been scorning Samsung, thanks to our long campaign, the company agreed to dialogue,” Hwang concluded.

Ploys

This is not the first time Samsung sought out direct dialogue with SHARPS.  And to date, all proposals have come up with ploys.  In September 2012, through its lawyers, Samsung proposed to seek arbitration on an appeal lawsuit brought by SHARPS, on behalf of a leukemia victim’s family, against the Korea Labor Welfare Corporation, the South Korean government’s workers compensation entity.  SHARPS rejected the proposal because Samsung, a third party to the lawsuit, called for dropping the lawsuit.  In October 2012, Samsung leaked a false story to the media, claiming that it has begun dialogue with SHARPS.

It was November of last year when Samsung sent SHARPS a written request for dialogue through a lawyer representing the company in the appeal lawsuit.  In December, SHARPS accepted the proposal.  In January 2013, Samsung complied with SHARPS’s request and confirmed SHARPS’s acceptance in writing.

The following is the timeline:

March 6, 2007  Hwang Yumi, Samsung’s former chip line worker, died of leukemia.
Sept. 28, 2012  Samsung made its first request for dialogue with SHARPS, on the condition that SHARPS would drop the ongoing workers compensation lawsuit.  SHARPS rejected it.
Oct. 17, 2012  Some media outlets began to run false stories that Samsung had initiated dialogue with SHARPS.
Oct. 18, 2012  Testimony by Samsung executives at a National Assembly hearing confirmed that the aforementioned media reports are false.
Nov. 27, 2012  Choi Wu-su, president of Samsung’s device solution unit, sent a written request for dialogue through a lawyer representing Samsung at the workers’ comp lawsuit
Dec. 20, 2012  SHARPS accepted the request in a letter to Samsung Representative Director Kim Jong-jung.
Jan. 4,  2013  SHARPS in writing urged Samsung to express its willingness to dialogue in writing.
Jan. 11, 2013  Representative Director Kim notified SHARPS, in writing, of the formation of a negotiation team.

Maneuvering

In a letter dated January 11, Choi Wu-su, president of Samsung’s device solution unit, said the company tapped an in-house lawyer and a human resources executive for dialogue with SHARPS.

However, the company appears to be continuing its maneuvering by leaking unsubstantiated leads to the media.   On January 22, the independent Hankyoreh described a new remarkable proposal under consideration at Samsung for the occupational disease victims, citing an anonymous Samsung executive.  “If necessary, we can raise a special fund for the people who developed leukemia not just at Samsung but also anywhere at home and abroad,” the newspaper quoted the unnamed source as saying.

Over the past six years,  SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and aplastic anemia after employment in the South Korean electronics industry.  As of June 2012, 63 of the 155 have died.  The majority of the workers, 138, were employed at Samsung Electronics, Samsung Electro-Mechanics, and Samsung SDS—the three electronics affiliates of the Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate.  Of the 63 deaths, 56 were Samsung employees.

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A series of protests and petitions has stopped Seoul National University from hiring Hwang Chang-gyu, former semiconductor chief of Samsung, as visiting scholar.

After protests by SHARPS and student groups on campus, the Sociology department of Seoul National University (SNU) has reneged on plans to hire a former Samsung executive as a visiting scholar.

The SNU sociology faculty requested the university administration discontinue “administrative procedures” to appoint Hwang Chang-gyu, CEO of Samsung’s semiconductor unit between 2004 and 2008, to the cushy position, the department said in a statement posted on its website Jan. 21.

Hwang was once internationally famous for doubling memory chip capacity every year between 2002 and 2008. Hwang’s stint as head of Samsung’s semiconductor unit also is also infamous for a big push on production speed and volume at the cost of workplace safety.

Hwang Yumi, the first leukemia victim who came out against Samsung, was hired at the Samsung chip unit in 2003 when Hwang Chang-gyu began his big push on speed and volume.  In 2005, she was diagnosed with leukemia.  In 2007, Yumi died at the age of 23.  Her family’s public outcry led to the formation of SHARPS.

The month-long attempt at Hwang’s hiring inspired protests at one of South Korea’s most prestigious colleges, from law school to the department seeking to bring him in-house.  The sociology faculty found itself under public pressure and only grudgingly renounced the plans.  “We feel deeply responsible and offer a sincere apology to Dr. Hwang [Chang-gyu] for the abnormal end to his hiring,” said the faculty in the statement.

The faculty went on to pontificate:  “We express concerns about the bias expressed in statements by students.  Interpreting Dr. Hwang’s hiring as a move to desert labor and side with capital cannot rescue sociology from the 20th century paradigm.”

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Seoul National University students and SHARPS voice opposition to the appointment of Hwang Chang-gyu, former CEO of Samsung’s semiconductor unit, as a visiting professor.

SHARPS and students activists at Seoul National University have formed a task force to thwart the university’s month-long attempt to appoint a former executive of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. to the Sociology department as a visiting professor.

On Jan. 14, the activists and bereaved family members of Samsung blood-disorder victims rallied at the administration building of SNU, calling for the country’s top university to rescind plans to appoint Hwang Chang-gyu, CEO of Samsung’s semiconductor unit in 2004-2008, to the prestigious position.

Hwang’s Law

In 2002, as CTO of Samsung, Mr. Hwang could claim a global reputation when he announced that Samsung would continue to double memory density every year—he dubbed this process Hwang’s Law.  Indeed, Samsung met this goal each year between 2002 and 2008.   However, Samsung has since been unable to develop a viable technology to live up to Hwang’s Law.

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Hwang Chang-gyu, former CEO of Samsung’s semiconductor unit, does not know much about sociology but was once good at doubling memory density.

What really drove Hwang’s Law was Samsung’s belief in speed and volume.  As technology blogger Chris Edwards rightly predicted in 2007 regarding the end of Hwang’s Law:  “What is more likely is that Samsung will use the process developed for the 64Gb memory to make cheaper 8, 16 and 32Gb devices come 2009 when this process is meant to [enter] volume production.”

Hwang’s Deadly Law

Samsung’s young, mostly female, employees have worked excessively long hours under hazardous conditions to make the staggering speed and volume of chip production possible.  As of March 2012, SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis and aplastic anemia after employment in the electronics industry in South Korea.  More than 50 percent are former Samsung employees.  As of June, 2012, of the 155, 63 have died.

“Hwang Chang-gyu belongs in prison, not college,” said Hwang Sang-ki, the father of Hwang Yumi. His daughter was hired at the Samsung chip unit in 2003 when Hwang Chang-gyu began his big push on speed and volume.  In 2005, she was diagnosed with leukemia.  In 2007 Yumi died at the age of 23.   “Hwang Chang-gyu violated laws and left numerous workers ill and busted union drives,” the 58-year-old father said at the rally.

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Hwang Sang-ki, the father of a Samsung leukemia victim, Hwang Yumi: “Hwang Chang-gyu belongs in prison, not college.”

Not a Sociologist

The 60-year-old Mr. Hwang, with a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering from University of Massachusetts, has no credentials as a sociologist.  And his post-Samsung career is not impressive at all.  In 2010, Mr. Hwang was named National Chief Technology Officer, a newly created government position responsible for selecting and supporting an emerging strategic industry.  An inquiry by lawmakers discovered that in fiscal 2012 his office spent KRW4.7 billion (U$444 thousand) on remuneration versus KRW12 billion (U$1.1 million) on a total of three R&D projects.

To date, the SNU administration has categorically dismissed repeated requests by students and activists to disclose the rationale behind Mr. Hwang’s appointment.  The university’s personnel committee is scheduled to meet on Jan. 17 to finalize its decision on Mr. Hwang’s hiring.

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