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South Korea’s lawmakers, conservative and liberal alike, unanimously pass a bill hampering workers’ ability to petition for workers compensation.

 

South Korea’s legislature all but unanimously approved a controversial amendment to an industrial information law allowing corporations to arbitrarily conceal any information that can be used as evidence for workers compensation petitions.

Samsung’s Amendment

The amendment includes two clauses that encapsulate the recurrent rationales used by Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. against its former employees who seek workers compensation after falling victim to occupational diseases, said Lim Ja-woon, attorney with SHARPS, in an op-ed.

First, the one clause provides that information on core national technologies should not disclosed, but it does not clearly define what constitutes “core national technologies.”  During two separate workers compensation cases in 2017-18, Samsung attempted to defy a court order for the release of chemicals used in chip or LCD production, citing them as “core national technologies.” In the 2018 case, the commerce ministry backed Samsung’s position despite weak legal ground.

In both cases, SHARPS defeated the tech giant.  However, the new clause, which carries prison sentences of up to three years for non-compliance, will make any such win unlikely.

Also, the clause also likely runs counter to an existing one requiring trade secrets to be disclosed to protect life and health, noted Lim.

The other clause enables corporations to file criminal complaints and seek punitive damages for the disclosures of even lawfully acquired industrial information.  The clause, in letters and spirit, is similar to highly noticeable sentences in the first letter Samsung sends to new workers compensation petitioners, said the attorney.

Amid Rising Trade Tensions with Japan

The amendment to the Act on Prevention of Divulgence and Protection of Industrial Technology was pushed through with the speed of light in the country’s notoriously cacophonous National Assembly.  On Aug. 2, 2019, the bill was passed by a margin of 206 vs. four abstentions, only one month after it was finalized.

Even lawmakers of the two minority progressive parties, the Justice and the Minjung parties, voted for the bill, with no public debate.  The government’s own press statement did not make any reference to the two clauses.

“SHARPS did not openly oppose the bill,” said a Justice Party spokesperson in a statement released to the workplace safety advocacy group.  “The regressive clauses were not fully noticed by [the party].”  “It was passed at a time of rising trade tensions with Japan,” said the person.

In a recent court hearing over workers compensation, a Samsung attorney rejected a request for information disclosure, citing the amendment, according to Lim.

The amendment will take effect on Feb. 21, 2020.

 

 

 

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Han Hye-kyung, a Samsung cluster victim, 41 years old, has campaigned for ten years to receive her workers compensation

A victim of occupational disease contracted while at Samsung has won her workers compensation after ten years of efforts to get through a legal thicket often rigged in favor of corporate interests.

On June 5, Han Hye-kyung was notified of the approval of her workers compensation by KCOMWEL.  Han, now 41 years old, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 27 in 2005.  Four years earlier, in 2001, she resigned from Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., where she had handled hazardous chemicals while soldering together LCD parts for six years since 1995.  Han was only 17 years old and still in high school when she began to work at Samsung.

War of Attrition

In 2009, Han, with her single mother, Kim Si-nyeo, petitioned for workers compensation, and was quickly denied.  The mother-and-daughter duo spent the next six years fighting, until their last legal recourse was exhausted.

It was a war of attrition waged by Samsung and the government against two women who found themselves under great financial and emotional distress to prove the work-relatedness of Han’s tumor.

However, in 2017, South Korea’s supreme court ordered KCOMWEL to posthumously pay workers compensation to a Samsung worker who died of a brain tumor, shifting some of the burden of proof for work-relatedness to the corporation and the regulator, and away from workers compensation petitioners.

The landmark ruling paved the way for Han to request the re-evaluation of her workers compensation with KCOMWEL, which finally decided in her favor two years later.

Activism 

Han, who makes use of a wheelchair after a botched surgery, and her mother Kim, are active members of SHARPS.  Only a few of SHARPS’ countless pickets, protests and rallies have occurred without the mother pushing the daughter’s wheelchair.  The two women withstood heat waves and cold snaps to help keep SHARPS’ sit-in going for 1,023 days in 2015-2018.  In November 2018, a once-invincible Samsung finally caved in and promised a compensation scheme for cluster victims.

Temptation

In 2013, Samsung executives surreptitiously offered Kim KRW 1 billion (U$847,100) and full medical coverage upfront on condition that she and her daughter severs ties with SHARPS.  The financially drained mother was tempted, but the daughter resisted.  Emotions ran wild, and the argument became violent: the mother slapped the daughter twice across the face.  The daughter cried, “I cannot betray Lee Jong-ran.”  Lee is a labor attorney with SHARPS.  The mother soon had to admit that she couldn’t either.

Concert  

To celebrate Han’s long-awaited win, SHARPS will host a small concert on June 14 in a Seoul café, where the mother and the daughter will sing an old K-pop tune, ‘The Rose.’  Just as the lyrics of the song say, they are the rose with refreshing thorny stems.

If you are lucky enough to be in Seoul on that day, you are invited (See the following poster).

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On a summer day during their 1,023-day sit-in at Samsung’s headquarters, Han Hye-kyung, a Samsung cluster victim, and her mother are dancing to a remake of the 70s disco hit ‘I Will Survive.’  The government’s acknowledgement of the “relatedness” of many workers’ blood disorders will likely expedite proceedings for their workers compensation.

Workers fell sick and died due to exposure to hazardous chemicals in their chip labs, Korea Workers Compensation & Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) concluded on May 22, after reviewing ten years of epidemiological data.

A Decade

The government entity tracked blood-disorder cases and analyzed risks among workers who worked in the chip industry between 2007 and 2017, KCOMEWEL said.  “The two types of blood disorder, leukemia and non-Hodgkin Lymphoma victimized chip workers who have worked in the industry before 2010.”

“We could not exactly determine hazardous materials or their exposure levels,” added the agency, “However, their working conditions contributed to the incidences of [the illnesses].”

KCOMWEL collected data from about 200 thousand workers who worked, in 2007-2010, at chip labs at four corporations including Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. and SK Hynix.

Trigger:  The Death of A Young Worker

Spurred by the death in 2007 of Hwang Yu-mi, the first known victim of Samsung’s blood disorder cluster, the findings of KCOMEL’s first-ever comprehensive epidemiological probe into an industry will likely streamline workers compensation proceedings for many victims still awaiting rulings or seeking retrial of their rejected petitions.

Lately Available

For SHARPS, KCOMEL’s acknowledgement of the “relatedness” validated its ten years of campaigning for cluster victims at Samsung and other chipmakers in South Korea.

“This probe depended only on lately available data,” said Hwang Sang-ki, a SHARPS founder and the father of Yu-mi.  “It took eleven years to see these findings,” Mr. Hwang added.  “Law should change to have the government to share the burden of proof with workers compensation petitioners.”

Said SHARPS in a press release on May 22, “The probe still left things to be desired.”  “It did not investigate temporary workers,” it continued.  “It did not clearly determine what caused the blood disorders [among the workers].”

The following are key takeaways from the KCOMWEL probe:

  • Female chip workers are 1.19 times more likely than the average population and 1.55 more likely than average workers to fall victim to leukemia;

  • They are 1.19 times more likely than the average population and 1.55 times more likely than average workers to fall victim to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma;

  • More female workers ages 20-24 developed a blood disorder than male engineers; and

  • Female workers who began to work before 2010 are at the highest risk of developing a blood disorder.

 

This post is re-posted after “work-relatedness” and “electronics industry” were changed to “relatedness” and “semiconductor industry” to better reflect the wording of KCOMWEL’s probe.   

 

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Lee Jong-ran (right), labor attorney with SHARPS, helps Hwang Sang-ki (left), a SHARPS founder, put on a clean suit ahead of a rally against Samsung in 2016. Samsung listed Lee and Hwang as “persons of interest,” and put them under surveillance.  SHARPS activists often don clean suits to highlight the work hazards of Samsung’s chip labs.

 

The Samsung corporate star chamber has flouted laws and placed SHARPS under watch even at a time when the advocacy group and the company began dialogue, independent daily Kyunghyang reported on April 18, citing court records.

Secretive Office

Two confidential Samsung documents surfaced during a criminal hearing on April 16 for 32 Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd directors and executives indicted for allegations of illegal union-busting, confirming long-held beliefs that Samsung had placed SHARPS under illicit surveillance.

The two records were among a trove of documents the government seized two years ago from the Future Strategy Office of the Samsung Business Group, the secretive office of 200 staff handpicked and used by the conglomerate’s founding Lee family to perpetuate its control of 63 affiliates.

Samsung’s Fears of a Union and Two Comic Books

In one document, the office made a list of juyo inmul, or “persons of interest,” including Hwang Sang-ki—a SHARPS founder and father of a publicly known victim of Samsung’s blood-disorder cluster—and Lee Jong-ran, SHARPS’s labor attorney.  The document included such private information as photos of the two activists, their national ID numbers, and their descriptions as well as those of their personal friends, according to Kyunghyang which reviewed the documents.

The document was drafted in late 2012, when Samsung contacted SHARPS to start its first dialogue.

In the other, the office laid out its own analysis of A Dustless Room and The Smell of Humanity, the two graphic narratives about Samsung’s occupational disease cluster and victims.  In 2012 when the books came out, even independent publications refused to run advertisements for fear of Samsung’s retaliation.

“As the cluster issue gained publicity,” Kyunghyang quoted a prosecution document as saying, “[the Future Strategy Office] watched not only employees at risk of unionization, but also SHARPS.”

No Future for Future Strategy

The Future Strategy Office was placed under public scrutiny in 2016 when a probe by the special prosecutor revealed its pivotal role in Samsung’s heir apparent Lee Jae-yong’s bribery of then-president Park Geun-hye.

In early 2017, findings of the investigations landed Lee and Park in jail.  A year later, Lee was released as his sentence was waived. However, a highest court ruling is still pending for him.

In the period leading to the pair’s arrests, the government executed search warrants on the Future Strategy Office, which led the seizure of hundreds of documents proving many illegalities Samsung committed apart from the aforementioned briberies.

In September 2018, some of these records led to the indictments of Lee Sang-hoon, executive chairman of Samsung Electronics, and 31 other executives, for allegedly sabotaging a unionization effort at its network of after-sale repair services in 2013-2016.  During these years, Samsung’s brutal union-bashing, coupled with harsh working conditions, left at least three workers to die in accidents or commit suicide in protest.

In 2014, Samsung allegedly used a police officer to bribe the father of a worker who committed suicide in protest of its union busting to steal his body from the morgue.

In February 2017, Samsung said it would dissolve the Future Strategy Office.

As of this writing, SHARPS is still discussing what legal action it should take based on the new revelations.

 

 

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Lee Ga-young, 26 years old, died of lymphoma on April 8, 2019, after four years of on-the-job chemical exposure at Seoul Semiconductor, an LED maker in Ansan, Korea. While she was in her sickbed, the employer sought to have her workers compensation nullified.

A young female worker has died due to the cumulative effects of her on-the-job chemical exposure, amid threats by her employer seeking to invalidate her workers compensation.

On April 8, 2019, Lee Ga-young, 26 years old, died of malignant lymphoma, about two years after her diagnosis with the fatal condition, and about four years after she began to work at LED maker Seoul Semiconductor Co., Ltd, where she mixed mold parts since February 2015.

Chemically Drenched Death

Lee worked ten- or twelve-hour shifts mixing such high-risk, high-temperature silicone materials as OE66030A and OE6630B, which emit formaldehyde and benzene at 150°C or higher.  She was not warned of or educated on the risks of these materials.

Two years after her first diagnosis, in Sept. 2018, the malignant lymphoma returned with a vengeance.  A month later, her petition for workers compensation was approved.  However, hematopoietic stem cell transplants in Jan. 2019 turned out to be too late and too little to save her.  Lee died three months later.

Common Tragedy 

Lee’s death adds to an ongoing, commonplace tragedy in South Korea’s electronics industry, in which on-the-job chemical exposure continues to leave young workers dead or impaired while corporations shirk responsibility on the pretext of trade secrets.

However, her death came with a nasty twist.

In Jan., when Lee was probably receiving the transplants, Seoul Semiconductor filed a lawsuit seeking the nullification of her workers compensation.

It is almost impossible to understand why the world’s fifth largest LED maker made such a move against a worker who fell fatally ill while helping it generate $870 million in annual revenue.

Nothing to Win, Nothing to Lose

Management equated Lee’s workers compensation with an attempt at corporate defamation, according to SHARPS, because it considers Seoul Semiconductor a good corporation in full compliance with safety regulations.  The LED maker was not alone in attacking worker compensation petitioners.  In Jan. 2019, a new law took effect to curb the rise in these corporate abuses by delinking workers compensation payouts from rises in workers comp premiums.

Seoul Semiconductors stands little chance of winning the nullification.  However, it probably believed it had little to lose if the purpose of the lawsuit was to harass the victim in a sickbed and her family.

On April 9, in meeting with Lee’s family, a Seoul Semiconductor representative director said he would discuss at the coming management-labor meeting whether to withdraw the lawsuit.

On the morning of April 10, SHARPS issued an open letter to the management and labor council of the company, calling for the company to withdraw the lawsuit.  Seoul Semiconductor said in the afternoon it would comply with the demand.

 

 

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On March 4, 2019, with SHARPS’s assistance, 14 occupational disease victims of Samsung collectively petitioned for workers compensation.

A majority of more than 200 new occupational-disease cases from Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. and its affiliates are not covered by the compensation program that the conglomerate launched last year as part of arbitration with SHARPS, the labor advocacy group found.

New Victims

During the three months since the launch of the compensation scheme in Nov. 2018, SHARPS profiled 206 occupational disease victims from Samsung and a variety of its related companies or contractors, about 450 victims were profiled over the course of 11 years between 2007 and 2018, said the advocacy group in a press release on March 4.

About 127, or about 62 percent of the new victims, won’t benefit from the current compensation program because their diseases or workplaces are not stipulated to be covered by the program.  Also, on what appears to be a technicality, their diagnoses fell outside the timeframe covered by the program.

 

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Falling Through the Cracks

Among such victims is Hong Kyong-hwa, 53 years old, who worked at a Samsung semiconductor lab in 1988-1992.  In 1997, about five years after her resignation from the company, she was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that was such a rarity it was scantly documented at that time in South Korea.  In 2018, about 22 years after her departure from Samsung, Hong was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She could not be compensated for either disease because she was not diagnosed with lupus within five years after her departure and with breast cancer within 15 years to be eligible for the compensation scheme.

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Cho Seong-kwan, 43 years old, worked in a Samsung home appliance unit between 1998 and 2006.  In 2003, he received bone marrow transplants after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.  He has since suffered chronic depression.  However, Hwang is not entitled to compensation under the program because his workplace is not within its scope which only includes semiconductor and LCD units.

Likewise, a 31-year-old researcher, identified by his surname Hwang, who died of leukemia three years of on-the-job chemical exposure at Samsung SDI, is not eligible because his company is not covered under the scheme.

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Shift in Focus  

In a shift in focus, SHARPS is diversifying beyond holding Samsung directly responsible, by initiating campaigns to strengthen regulations to thwart workplace hazards and corporate abuse.  “Legislation must be strengthened to heavily penalize corporations when there are workplace fatalities,” weekly Hankyoreh 21 quoted Hwang Sang-ki, a SHARPS founder, as saying.

SHARPS will proactively assist the victims ineligible for the Samsung plan in petitioning for workers compensation, Kong Jeong-ok, a medical doctor and a SHARPS founder, told the liberal weekly magazine.

On March 4, with SHARPS’s assistance, 14 victims collectively filed for workers compensation.

As of March 2019, SHARPS has profiled 616 occupational-disease victims of Samsung and other electronics makers. Among them, only 137 received workers compensation while 185 died.

 

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A young researcher died of what appears to be occupationally caused leukemia at Samsung SDI, where a corporate motto reads, “SDI practices human respect.”  Source: Samsung SDI Website capture

 

A young researcher has died of leukemia only three years after he began work at Samsung SDI Co. Ltd, the conglomerate’s electronic materials unit.

The otherwise healthy 31-year-old researcher, identified only by his surname Hwang, died on Jan. 29, about 13 months after his diagnosis with leukemia, SHARPS said in a press statement on Jan. 30.

A Deadly Career

In May 2014, upon earning a graduate degree in chemistry, Hwang took a job at Samsung SDI, assisting in developing etch materials for semiconductor processing.  In Dec. 2017, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia, at which time he petitioned for workers compensation and requested epidemiologic investigations of his labs.  Thirteen months later, he died while awaiting a first reply from the KCOMWEL.

Lethal Exposure

Just as with many Samsung victims before him, Hwang was outfitted on the job with little protective gear.  The following takeaways from the workers compensation petition he wrote reveal a likely lethal level of on-the-job chemical exposure:

  • I worked in a cleanroom at the Suwon plant of Samsung SDI from May 2014 onward.
  • I was responsible for assessing mixtures of aromatic polymers such as benzene and naphthalene.
  • I used hands to douse wafers with photosensitive liquids.  When the liquids vaporized and spread to the 1-meter radius of my workstation, the residues were so rampant that the area turned red.
  • When I coated semiconductor substrates with photoresistors, massive odors penetrated the mask and assailed my nostrils.

They Knew All Along

Hwang is not only the latest victim of Samsung’s occupational disease cluster, he is one of the first known victims among researchers who had been considered better paid and protected than young female line workers who comprise the majority of the victims.

In Nov. 2015 in the South Korean city of Gwangju, this blogger, who anonymously updates these blogs as a volunteer, had the rare opportunity to question a Samsung executive-turned politician about the cluster.  When this writer asked what she, as a female politician with strong ties with Samsung, could do for the terminally ill women workers, the politician answered: “It’s not that only factory workers were dead or sick.  Researchers died, too.”

While sending shivers down the spine of this writer, her remarks suggested that Samsung could have at least some knowledge of the cluster from its inception.  After her failed bid for a National Assembly seat, she has a high-ranking job in the Moon Jae-in government.

Decades of Union Busting

Samsung SDI is not part of the compensation program agreed to by SHARPS and Samsung in Nov. 2018 as it focuses mainly on victims from semiconductor and LCD units.

Samsung SDI is infamous for union busting.  And its successful frustration of unionization drives means that likely victims of the cluster have no place to turn within their company.

Nothing better demonstrates the company’s anti-union brutality than the thirty-one years of agony wrought upon Lee Man-shin, a worker who attempted to form a union in 1987.  Samsung SDI sent him offshore in the early 1990s.  He had since been transferred to various locations globally until 2011.   The following year, the company fired Lee for his ongoing involvement with a unionization drive.

A company document, made in 2002 and leaked in 2014, showed Samsung SDI security staff tailed munje sawon, roughly translated “troublemakers”, and tapped their cell phones.

In 2014, the appeals court ruled in favor of Lee’s reinstatement.  With a highest-court ruling still pending, Lee, now 55 years old, still stages a sit-in at Samsung’s corporate headquarters in Seoul, where he and his unionists hold rallies on every Thursday.

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Lee Man-shin (left) has been fighting for his union at Samsung SDI since 1987.  Source: hani.co.kr

New Movement

Hwang’s death came at a time when the gruesome on-the-job death of a young temporary worker kindled a new wave of protests against workplace hazards and job insecurity.

In Dec. 2017, Kim Yong-kyun, 24 years old, was killed at a thermal plant about 150 kilometers southwest of Seoul after being sucked into a coal conveyer belt and decapitated.  Kim was alone responsible for overseeing a high-speed one-mile-long conveyor belt, alternating 10-hour night and day shifts.  A temporary worker under a one-year contract, Kim was not offered protective gear or safety education.

Following his death, the country’s quarrelsome National Assembly quickly passed a long-dormant bill to strengthen workplace safety.  However, the emerging campaign calls for limiting the subcontracting of high-risk jobs and replacing temporary jobs with permanent ones with benefits and security.

The protesters set up an altar for Kim in central Seoul.  SHARPS and other labor advocates organized a hunger strike there.  Candlelight vigils are regularly held.

An English-language online petition drive is currently underway for Kim Yong-kyun.    

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Kwon Young-eun, a SHARPS activist, spoke at a vigil on Jan. 30 for Kim Yong-kyun.  Source: SHARPS

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