Six years ago, on March 6, 2007, Hwang Yumi died in her father’s taxi on her way to hospital. Yumi was only 23 years old. It was five years after she began to work as an operator at Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. in the city of Suwan. And it was 20 months after she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. The death of a daughter changed the life of her father. Since her death, Hwang Sang-ki, a taxi driver of modest means, did everything he could to get the tragic story of her daughter out in a country where the world’s largest semiconductor maker’s political and economic tentacles reach to every corner. Samsung attempted to suppress the father’s voice with hush money and blackmail.
His tenacity came to fruition in November 2007, when a group of public health and labor activists formed SHARPS. The independent news website Pressian interviewed Hwang on March 6 to mark the sixth anniversary of Yumi’s death. The following is a full English translation, with minor modifications to better suit English readers:
Six years after losing his daughter Hwang Yumi to Leukemia, Hwang Sang-ki still splits his time between Seoul and his hometown Sokcho. In the past six years, no rally against Samsung and its occupational disease cluster has taken place without his presence. “I am making a living driving a taxi in Sokcho. Splitting time between the two cities is really hectic,” Hwang told the reporter.
March 6th marks the sixth anniversary of Yumi’s death. The entire six years also represented the time he spent fighting to get his daughter’s death legally recognized as the result of occupational hazards. It took six years after her death–and four years after his court petition to win a lower court ruling that workers compensation for Yumi’s death should be granted—something Samsung has been denying and the Korea Workers Compensation & Welfare Service (KCOMWEL), the regulatory body, had been fighting. This is not the end of the story. Hwang may spend more years in court as high court, and Supreme Court, proceedings are still ahead of him.
Blank Letter of Resignation
It was June 2005 when Yumi was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. She was 21 years old. She developed the condition though there was no family history of the rare disease. It had been only 20 months after she began to work as an operator at the Kihung plant of Samsung.
In December 2005 when Yumi’s condition took a brief favorable turn after bone marrow transplants, Hwang learned of words that 30-year-old Yi Sook-young, a Samsung employee who worked alongside Yumi, died of leukemia. That confirmed his belief that her daughter’s disease was the result of occupational hazards. It was hardly a coincidence that the two co-workers developed the rare type of leukemia, which was found in only 4.2 out of the 100,000 people aged 20 to 29 nationally. Instead of approving her disease as an industrial accident, Samsung demanded Yumi’s resignation.
“Managers visited me at home in Sokcho. They said Yumi must resign immediately because her sick leave could no longer be extended. They asked me if I had anything to ask of the employer before she resigns. I requested they petition for workers compensation for her so Yumi could get medical treatment without interruption. Then, a manager asked me, ‘Do you believe you can take on Samsung and defeat us?” I answered, ‘I can’t.”
“They told me to ask for something other than workers compensation. I asked them to pay for Yumi’s treatment. The manager demanded Yumi’s immediate resignation in exchange for KRW 5 million (U$4,610) They gave me a folded blank paper on which to put Yumi’s full name and national ID number. That became her letter of resignation”
In mid-November 2006, after the blank “letter of resignation”, Yumi’s condition grew worse. The manager who picked up the resignation letter visited Hwang again, now with the KRW 5 million. He said the KRW 5 million was all he could offer and demanded that Hwang accept it.
Hwang began to look for former Samsung employees who had developed leukemia. By word of mouth, he found six victims. Meanwhile, Samsung maintained that Yumi, having resigned, had nothing with the company any longer.
“In January 2007, four human resources managers visited me at home again. I demanded the reason why they insisted Yumi was not an industrial accident victim—although she and six others developed the disease. Then, they said the company does not use chemicals or leukemia-causing materials. They demanded the reason why I was trying to frame Samsung with lies. The talk discontinued as the four managers cornered me. And Yumi was dying. They did not ask anything about her condition. I was so sad and broke down into tears.”
On March 6, 2007, Yumi died. Hwang in vain resorted to elected officials, broadcasters–and indeed every possible place and people he could think of– regarding the working conditions that led to Yumi’s death. Finally, in June 2007, Uri Suwon, a small local newspaper, ran a report on Yumi’s death based on the journal she kept while working at her plant. In the same month, aided by labor advocacy groups, Hwang filed a petition with KCOMWEL for workers compensation. It was not an easy process.
“When I handed out copies of the newspaper at the gate of the plant, security guards took them away from the workers as they entered the factory. I put the copies in the newsstands at the Suwon train stations. Soon, well-built plainclothes men collected them all.”
On Sept. 1, 2007, Samsung conducted an epidemiologic probe of the plant. Hwang said of the probe as a sham. The probe should have been conducted, unannounced. However, the company knew the schedule and had enough time to prepare for it. “My daughter said she worked in a poorly ventilated room that was not compartmentalized. By the time they conducted the investigation, the factory was well-ventilated and cool, and separate areas were installed,” said Hwang.
After the epidemiologic investigation, a Samsung manager promised him KRW 1 billion (U$922,000) on the condition that he would stop contacting labor advocacy groups and publicly talking about the death of her daughter.
“I believed they attempted to silence me with money. Samsung believed that I would stop taking issue with it after being paid. However, I wouldn’t. More and more victims began to come out. I already knew there were six more at least. I believe that there must be no more victims.”
Short Victory After Long Fight
After Hwang’s efforts, on Nov. 11, 2007, about 20 labor and civic groups banded together and formed SHARPS. More victims came out. In May 2009, two years after receiving the petition, KCOMWEL turned it down.
In Jan. 2010, Hwang and four other Samsung workers who developed leukemia and other types of blood disease joined forces to bring an administrative lawsuit against KCOMWEL for denying their earlier petitions. Samsung, named as a party liable to the defendant in the lawsuit, hired six lawyers from big law firms to argue the case. On June 23, 2011, the court ruled in favor of Yumi and two other victims. It took yet another four years to score a legal victory after KCOMWEL’s rejections.
Boosted by Hwang’s triumph, more victims came forward. According to SHARPS, as of date, 200 workers once employed in the electronics industry have stepped forward. The organization had profiled 80 deceased workers.
“Samsung lied. When five victims came out, Samsung did not deny culpability. When that number became six, Samsung did not deny it either. An organization was formed. Two more came out, increasing the number to eight. Samsung admitted that many. More came out. Samsung merely admitted as many.”
Feb. 2011, the ministry of employment and labor finally confirmed that carcinogenic materials such as benzene, formaldehyde, and arsenic trioxide, as well as ionizing radiation, were in use at Samsung and other semiconductor makers. In April and December of the same year, two former Samsung employees’ petitions for workers compensation claims were granted by KCOMWEL. The two women respectively suffered breast cancer and aplastic anemia. In addition to Hwang’s victory, the two female workers’ cases were one of the greatest accomplishments by SHARPS.
Samsung By Numbers
Six years after the death of Hwang Yumi, this blog has put together some numbers to better show what takes for SHARPS and its supporters to take on Samsung:
The number of workplace safety violations turned up South Korea’s ministry of employment and labor in a probe that followed the fatal chemical leaks of Jan. 28-29.
KRW250 million, or $2.3 million, was the amount of penalties levied on Samsung by the ministry over the chemical leaks that killed one contract workers and injured four others.
The Samsung Suwon plant, where the fatal leaks took place, had only one full-time safety officer.
According to the March 3, 2013 The Financial Times, Samsung denies all claims of child labor in China and other illegal labor practices after being sued by three French human rights groups. The suit accuses Samsung of deceiving consumers by violating its own promises on ethical working conditions and of using child labor. Samsung admitted breaches of certain regulations as its Chinese contractors such as excessive working hours. The company promised to end this practice by the end of 2014.
The number of workers who SHAPRS has profiled that have developed various types of blood disorder while employed at Samsung or its subsidiaries as of Feb. 2013.
Out of the 181 injured workers, 69 have died as of Feb. 2013.
The age of the youngest victim is 19. The female worker, known by her last name Choi outside SHARPS because her family does not want her identity released, died of a blood disorder in 1995, a year after she began to work at the Kihung plant.
The age of the oldest victim is 46. Yun Jae-hyon, a male, began to work at Samsung’s LCD plant in 1989 and died of brain tumors in 2007.
In total, 35 female and 34 male victims have died.
Put Human Life Above Money
Hwang’s tiny victory came after many twists and turns. “When I first attempted to get the story of my daughter out, journalists and lawmakers looked the other way. Many friends and relatives of mine attempted to stop me, saying I could not take on Samsung,” said the 58-year-old taxi driver, “and that made me feel really lonely.” He got physically hurt by Samsung, too. When he mounted pickets and protests, the company’s security guards often yanked him off the grounds, roughly.
I was assaulted during the funeral procession for Lee yun-jeong, who died in May 2012 of brain tumors after six years with Samsung. When we attempted to hold a rally at Samsung’s corporate headquarters, security guards did not allow us to pass. Tens of them surrounded me. They tripped me and threw me on the ground. I could not walk normally for months. Samsung did not even allow us to commiserate over the unjust death of its own employee in front of its headquarters. Families of other victims share the same pain.”
He then criticized the ministry of employment and labor and KCOMWEL—the government agencies purported to protect workers that he believes instead shield the employer from employees’ challenges.
“When I petitioned for workers compensation, I said Yumi had worked on line 3 of bay 3. A KCOMWEL clerk said Yu worked only for three months putting stickers on products in bay 3, based on the company’s statement. I said Samsung was lying. Then the clerk abruptly got angry and yelled at me. He said Samsung would not lie just because a few employees had died.”
“The epidemiologic probe by the ministry of employment and labor was no different. It investigated less than 10 percent of about 800-900 chemicals used in chip making. Samsung refused to disclose other chemicals, citing trade secrets, and the government did not pursue further. Trade secrets must not be above the right to health. High-tech exists to better human life, so do trade secrets and money. However, what Samsung and KCOMWEL say the right to business is above human life.”
What is on his mind six years after he began to fight an undefeatable Samsung?
“I had been making a living driving a cab for more than 30 years before Yumi became ill. Even back then, I believed that workers were poorly treated by the government. Nevertheless, I had never fought back. I met many people when I petitioned for workers compensation. I came to know that there were many workers who were unfairly treated. Workers need to become better off, and society needs to be safer. Those in power impose too heavy a burden on the workers.”
Hwang said workers compensation is a social safety net for those injured in industrial accidents. “Epidemiologic probes should be conducted, unannounced. Corporations should disclose which chemicals they use. Regulations should be revised so corporations, not workers who petition for insurance claims, need to prove the causality between working conditions and the disease that they cause. Speaking of the recent fatal chemical leaks at Samsung, he said, “The government sides with corporations. Corporations cover things up. These incidents are bound to repeat.”
“I promised myself that I would reveal what had caused her disease. Getting her condition acknowledged as an industrial accident was the first thing to do. Now that her case is approved as an accident by a lower court, the causes of other victims’ illnesses need disclosing. I kept my promise to her, but not completely yet.”
“The issue of occupational disease is not limited to Samsung. [Hazardous] chemicals are used at automobile, shipbuilding and semiconductor factories, but they are poorly managed. There are many workers who developed cancer or other illnesses. To protect them institutionally, regulatory criteria for occupational diseases must be eased. Yumi’s memorial day is getting closer. I will fight on until no workers become ill because of their jobs, and until they will be fully compensated for their illnesses once they become ill.”