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Archive for July, 2013

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On July 26, a huge water tank collapsed at the Samsung Fine Chemicals plant, leaving three workers dead and 12 injured. Source: SBS News

Three workers were killed and 12 injured on the late afternoon of July 26 when a huge water tank burst during a stress test at the Samsung Fine Chemicals Co., Ltd. plant in Ulsan, South Korea.

The 1,300-ton water tank erupted when it was filled with roughly 1,000 tons of water as part of the stress test, according to the independent daily Hankyoreh.  The eruption brought down the 17-meter support structure that fell upon the 15 workers.

Samsung Fine Chemicals proceeded with the test, despite the cracks it had found earlier, a probe by SHARPS found.  All 15 victims are contract workers in their twenties.

Disastrous Self Inspection

Many of the South Korean conglomerate Samsung Group’s 80-plus affiliates have high regulatory ratings that exempt them from regular safety inspections.  The regulatory ratings system is flawed because it incentivizes  the Samsung companies to cover up industrial and occupational incidents in order to remain exempt from government inspections.

This in turn has made Samsung plants vulnerable to industrial injury and fatality as seen in the following rundown for the current 2013 alone:

 Jan. 27-28  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 a chip plant in Hwaseong, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, in Jan. 27-28.
 April 14  A leak of chlorine gas injured two employees and four contract workers at the Ulsan plant of Samsung Fine Chemical.
 May 2  Another leak of hydrofluoric acid injured three workers at the same plant where two acid leaks killed one contractor and four others in January.
 July 24  A fire occurred at a ventilation facility in Kihung.
 July 25  A leak of ammonia gas injured four workers at the Hwaseong plant, the site of the fatal gas leaks in January.

Samsung’s Next Cash Cow?

The water tank failure took place at an expanded plant under construction, whereupon completion, Samsung Fine Chemicals and SunEdison (formerly MEMC) of the US will jointly produce polysilicon, a key component of solar energy cells.

In what it dubs a strategic shift, Samsung has recently been attempting to diversify away from memory chips and home electronics goods and to enter the solar energy and medical equipment markets.

Whatever strategy it adopts, Samsung has shown little willingness to improve labor safety or sustainability.

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On July 30, SHARPS and tens of labor and community advocates mounted pickets in protest of the fatal water tank failure at Samsung Fine Chemicals. Source: SHARPS

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Choi Kwon-ho, the chief of the Seocho precinct of Seoul, where some police officers believe their “portrait right” is more important than citizens’ public safety.     Source: http://www.smpa.go.kr/sc/

Choi Kwon-ho, the chief of the Seocho precinct of Seoul, where at least two police officers safeguard their own “portrait rights” at the cost of ordinary citizens’ civil liberties.  Source: web capture at http://www.smpa.go.kr/sc/

On July 24th, the Seoul police harassed and even briefly detained SHARPS’s lawyer and supporters, one day after the advocacy group stepped up its effort to further press Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd, to admit that its hazardous working conditions have spawned a cluster of fatal occupational disease, and to compensate the victims.

Samsung Cordon

On July 24, SHARPS’s labor attorney Lee Jong-ran called the police after a phalanx of private security guards sealed off the public sidewalk at the entrance of Samsung’s corporate headquarters in Seoul.  Samsung also cordoned the streets around the building front with tens of buses in an apparent attempt to thwart pickets.  Two police officers from the Seocho precinct of Seoul showed up.  However, they did not take any action, claiming that maintenance of the streets is out of their jurisdiction.

Police Officers’ Rights to Their Portraits

Then, the two officers suddenly demanded a SHARPS volunteer stop videotaping their discussion with Lee.  The officers said, “Stop videotaping. That’s violations of the portrait rights.”

The portrait right, also called the right of publicity, refers to the right of an individual to protect the fair use of image.  In South Korea, portrait rights violations can lead to criminal charges.  When asked why videotaping public officials violated their publicity rights, the police did not answer. Instead, they threatened to arrest the videographer unless he gave them his national ID number and address.

On July 24th, Lee Jong-ran, SHARPS’s labor attorney, was arrested for murmuring to herself.

On July 24th, Lee Jong-ran, SHARPS’s labor attorney, was arrested for murmuring to herself.

Dangerous Murmur 

Following the argument, Lee murmured to herself, “They received money from Samsung?”  Then, the officers arrested her, citing defamation.

Chung Hee-su, the husband of a Samsung victim, went to the precinct to protest the arrest. The police arrested him too for public disturbances, but he was not read her rights when arrested.  Chung’s wife, Lee Yun-jeong died of brain tumor in May 2012.  She was survived by Chung and two children.

Lee and Chung were released that evening, after being held for seven hours.

New Round Of Campaign To Heighten Pressure on Samsung

The police harassment came at a time when SHARPS has been increasing pressure on Samsung with a series of daily pickets and collective workers comp petitions.  A day earlier, on July 23rd, SHARPS filed petitions for workers compensation on behalf of ten former Samsung Electronics employees.  Four of the petitioners worked on the same memory chip or LCD production line, where their co-workers had already died or been suffering from a variety of blood disorder.  Eight of the ten had been employed at the Kihung plant and two at the LCD plant of Samsung.

SHARPS also demanded the government conduct epidemiologic investigations of Samsung’s chip and LCD production lines.

Chung Hee-su’s wife Lee Yun-jeong died of brain cancer in May 2012, after having worked at a Samsung chip production line.  The police arrested Chung on July 24th for public disturbances when he protested the arrest of his labor attorney, Lee.  Chung was not Mirandized.

Chung Hee-su’s wife Lee Yun-jeong died of brain cancer in May 2012, after having worked at a Samsung chip production line. The police arrested Chung on July 24th for public disturbances when he protested the arrest of his labor attorney, Lee. Chung was not Mirandized.

One petitioner, who had inspected chip wafers—often with bare hands—at Samsung for 15 years, is diagnosed with choriocarcinoma, a fast-growing form of uterine cancer. The cancerous cells start in the tissues that would become the placenta, the organ that forms during pregnancy to feed the fetus.

Correction: a prior version of this post incorrectly indicated Chung Hee-su, husband of a Samsung victim, as a woman. This post has been updated to add more information on Chung and his late wife, Lee Yun-jeong

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