Two Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. contract workers have died of occupationally caused diseases since Dec. 2016, when Samsung’s heir apparent Lee Jae-yong’s business acumen and integrity were called into question by his involvement with a brewing influence-peddling scandal and a botched massive recall of a self-combustible Galaxy 7 smartphone.
Kim Ki-cheol, a 31-year-old worker hired through a contractor, died on Jan. 14, four years after his diagnosis with acute myeloid leukemia. Kim became the 79th occupational-disease cluster victim, and the 32nd victim of leukemia profiled by SHARPS.
Employed by Clean Factomation as a maintenance engineer for Samsung’s wafer lines in the city of Hwaseong in 2006, Kim had since been exposed to a variety of carcinogens such as ionizing radiation, benzene, and formaldehyde. About six years later, in 2012, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
In 2014, KCOMWEL cited “low hazardous chemical exposure” and denied Kim workers compensation—despite the fact that a special inspection by the government a year earlier turned up 2,004 safety violations at Samsung’s Hwaseong plant. Kim and his family brought an administrative lawsuit against Samsung and the government. The legal tit-for-tat has since further drained Kim and his family financially and emotionally. By 2015, Kim was left with little option but to take a meagre payout made though Samsung’s opaque compensation scheme.
Earlier, on Dec. 8, another contract worker died of peripheral T-cell lymphoma. The 52-year-old, identified at his family request only by his last name Hwang, began work in November 2011 at the same Hwaseong plant where Kim allegedly contracted leukemia, through Hanyang ENG which subcontracted Hwang’s job to its own subsidiary to further slash costs.
In the next two years, he connected chemical containers with pipes or cleaned them at the plant’s chemical supply system. It was also where, in Feb. 2013, two separate hydrofluoric acid gas leaks killed one worker and injured four. The company provided him with gloves and masks as only protective gear and never explained about the chemicals he was told to treat.
As of this writing, a ruling on Hwang’s petition for workers compensation is still pending. He is not eligible even for Samsung’s compensation scheme, which only covers workers employed before Jan. 2011.
Hwang was among the so-called IMF refugees, which refer to the large numbers of male workers who could not find stable employment since 1997, when the International Monetary Fund bailed out the South Korean economy with $60 billion.
Shift in Death Toll
The two recent deaths underscore a shift in the pattern of deaths and a likelihood that the toll may continue to rise.
To date, the majority of the deceased are young female full-time workers who worked directly at chip lines between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s. As automation has expanded, more and more middle-aged casual male workers have begun to fall victim to a variety of blood disorders after being exposed to hazardous chemicals while maintaining the facilities.
The rising occupationally caused death toll at Samsung factories itself is just infuriating. However, workers have been killed at the construction site in the city of Pyongtaek, where Samsung has been building a $14 billion semiconductor fabrication plant, the world’s most expensive, since May 15, 2016.
Seven months into construction, two construction workers died on the job, only nine days apart. On Nov. 29, 2016, Jo, a 46-year-old welder, died of asphyxiation after inhaling argon while welding underground pipelines. On Dec. 7, Kang, a 44-year-old duct worker, fell to his death from 69 meters high.
Samsung has demanded the two affiliates complete construction by year-end in 2017, about three months ahead of schedule. Workers have since had to work from predawn till dusk in bitter cold weather, according to the Korean Construction Workers Union, which surveyed the site. There were few facilities where workers could rest or eat, the union added.
Incompetent, Insensible and Ignominious
The Pyongtaek plant is a pet project of Samsung’s heir apparent, Jae-yong, also known as Jay Lee outside the country, who apparently attempts to prove his competence with the project that costs about Ireland’s yearly budget.
Now, all he did to aggrandize himself is undoing itself.
In the past three years since he effectively took the helm of the company from his incapacitated father, Lee Kun-hee, Jae-yong only showed incompetence as business leader and insensibility as employer.
In the period, he has not even mention once the ongoing, fatal occupational disease cluster existing in his factories.
Galaxy 7, Samsung’s smartphone, also dubbed as “Jae-yong phone” in South Korea for his heavy-handed involvement, turned out to be self-combustible. Samsung had to pull the plug on the Galaxy 7 after a massive, but still failed, recall.
Jay now stands a good chance of landing in a detention cell as it is now unearthed that he bribed a shamanic confidante of President Park Geun-hye, now faced with impeachment, to pressure the National Pension Fund to approve a controversial merger, at the cost of the fund’s own bottom line, pave the way for him to solidify his control of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.
As of this writing a court decision on an arrest warrant for Lee is still pending.
SHARPS’s Sit-in Continues
Since Oct. 7, 2015, SHARPS and its supporters have been staging a sit-in at Samsung D’light, the company’s so-called global exhibition space in south Seoul, calling for the world’s largest technology company to: 1) compensate all victims of occupational disease transparently and sufficiently; and 2) make a sincere and full apology.
Contingent to Candlelight Rallies
SHARPS has been sending a contingent to weekly candlelight rallies in central Seoul, which have drawn a total of more than 10 million protesters in the past three months. They have been calling for President Park’s resignation and the arrest of Samsung’s Lee and other corporate honchos involved in her corruption scandal.
Motherly Love for Jae-yong?
On Jan. 14, tens of members of Mommies’ Troop, the far-right female group allegedly funded by the Federation of Korean Industries, a big-business lobby, marched toward SHARPS’ sit-in, yelling, “Let’s Protect Lee Jae-yong.” The mommies, mostly in their late 40s to 50s, ripped SHARPS’s banners and left the site after the police showed up.
* On Jan. 18, at 5am, a Seoul court refused to issue an arrest warrant for Lee Jae-yong.
On Jan. 14, far-right activists attempted to raid SHARPS’s sit-in and destroyed its banners.