An ongoing attempt by Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. to outsource risk to an army of smaller contractors has proven dangerous as four workers are now at risk of losing vision due to exposure to gasified methanol while on the job.
The four workers, all temporary employees in their twenties at a Samsung supplier, suffered irreversible vision impairment after using high-density gasified methanol as coolant while edging aluminum clad circuits for smartphones, according to Solidarity For Workers’ Health, a Seoul-based advocacy group. The employer did not provide even basic protective gear such as gloves.
Due to legal considerations, the advocate did not disclose the name of the employer, which is a subcontractor of one of Samsung’s army of outsourcers. Nor did the Ministry of Employment and Labor, which on Feb. 5 said it has suspended the operations of the contractor in the city of Bucheon, about 25 kilometers south of Seoul.
Illegal Outsourcing and Low Wages
Two of the four victims, a man and the only woman, both 29 years old, are now at risk of complete blindness. A 25-year-old victim has lost vision in the left eye and impaired in the right. A 20-year-old victim has yet to be fully diagnosed for acute vision loss.
All four victims were employed on a short-term basis of about six months–an outlawed practice increasingly flouted by employers as the government has been stepping up efforts to repeal the ban on short-term outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.
The victims got the jobs through daily laborer agencies and earned about 5,700 won, or U$4.71, an hour, about a dime higher than the country’s mandated minimum wage of 5,580 won, U$4.61–compared with South Korea’s per capita GDP of U$24,565.
Outsourcing Risk; Shirking Responsibility
For Samsung, outsourcing is not just about cost rationalization. Rather, it is more about shirking corporate responsibility by outsourcing risk.
The world’s largest technology company even outsources first response for worksite accidents. In Jan. 2013 when two separate incidents left one worker dead and four injured at Samsung’s semiconductor plant, it turned out that the company hired an outside first-response firm which in turn outsourced jobs to a smaller contractor.
Samsung outsources maintenance and repair services to a loose network of contractors where working conditions are so harsh that a few workers have committed suicide in protest. From Brazil, to China, to Korea, Samsung’s supply chain is riddled with abuse and misconduct.
It is not that there is little Samsung can do about outsourcers’ labor practices. The opposite is true: the company can exert substantial influence on the way its supply chain functions. For instance, last year, prodded by the government to help address youth unemployment, Samsung introduced a so-called “stepping stone jobs initiative” under which it will literally farm 3,000 new hires through its contractors after three months of job training for which it will pay.
Samsung has strong sway on the supply chain, for which it has ultimate responsibility.
Samsung Continues To Dodge
SHARPS has been staging a sit-in at Samsung’s headquarters in south Seoul since Oct. 7, 2015.
After eight years of a fierce campaign by the advocacy group, on Jan. 17, Samsung finally made its first meaningful concession and agreed to an “ombudsman system” to make recommendations in the next there years to Samsung regarding worker safety measures. However, it still refuses to compensate all occupational disease victims fully and transparently. Worse, the company still rejects an independently verifiable monitoring system.
The South Korean government appears to be an enabler of Samsung’s ongoing negligence. To date, the Korea Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service has, only after long clerical and court campaigns, approved only four of the 74 petitions filed by victims with help from SHARPS.
In a rare victory for cluster victims, on Jan. 29, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of a petition by Lee Eun-joo, who died of ovarian cancer in 2012 after more than ten years of suffering. Ms. Lee was diagnosed with the cancer after six years of gluing together silicon wafers with formaldehyde lead at a Samsung lab where she began to work at the age of 17.
Emboldened: Benign or Malignant
After playing off victims against one another with the lure of quick compensation, Samsung has emerged emboldened and began to turn away some victims who are willingly complying with the company’s confidentiality request to receive token compensation.
According to Media Today, Samsung turned down a compensation application by Park Soo-youn (pseudonym), 35 years old, citing her brain tumors were not malignant—despite the fact she now suffers from an incurable occulosympathetic palsy as a result of craniotomy. Ms. Park was among the graduates of Gunsan Girls Commercial High School, from whom Samsung recruited in busloads for chip manufacturing in the 1990s. In 1999, she began to work at the Kiheung plant of Samsung, where she used bare hands to clean machinery and floors with chemicals unknown to her. In 2001, she saved enough to study music at college. By 2009, she became completely bedridden for her “benign tumors.”
To add salt to the wounds, a Samsung handler contacted Ms. Lee’s family after rejecting her application to wire 40,000 won, or U$32, as a reimbursement for the expenses.