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Stories from the Cleanroom, a new documentary on Samsung’s occupational-disease cluster on June 20 premiered at S. Korea’s National Assembly.  The film centers on about 20  victims and their families.

A new documentary on the agonies of victims of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.’s blood-disorder cluster has chosen an unusual venue for its premiere:  South Korea’s National Assembly hall.

On Jun 20, 2017 the new film, Stories from the Cleanroom, had its premiere, hosted by the euljiro committee, a caucus of young legislators of the ruling Minjoo Party that focuses on labor and small-business issues.

Stories from the Cleanroom, produced jointly by SHARPS and the anti-toxic waste global network IPEN, features twenty separate interviews with infirm victims and their next-of-kin as well as families of the deceased ones. An excerpt of the film is available here.    

Intense Film

For Samsung’s cluster victims, the word “cleanroom” is something of a misnomer because such rooms were designed to keep clean the electronic components they assembled while the workers are exposed to toxic chemicals.  The same is true of their cleansuits designed to keep the products dirt-free, not humans who make them.

Some victims and surviving family members attended the premiere, which was followed by a panel discussion with three lawmakers of euljiro.

“The film itself is intense,” said Joseph DiGangi, senior science and technical adviser with the IPEN, who attended the premiere on the organization’s behalf.  “Imagine sitting in a room full of former workers and surviving family members who appear in the film while watching it in a quiet dark room with people sniffing and wiping their eyes.”

Stunning Premiere

“The premiere stunned the lawmakers,” added DiGangi. “The National Assembly location gave it a gravitas that increased the impact even more.”

After ten years of campaigning, on May 8, SHARPS prized open the gate of the country’s legislature as the then-would ruling Minjoo Party agreed to a four-point policy framework urging Samsung to resume dialogue with the advocacy group.

While the framework was the first-ever pledge by the ruling party on Samsung’s negligence in workers safety, it is also true that it was led by euljiro, a tiny faction, during the election cycle.

“The Minjoo Party and euljiro will be with you,” Lee Hack-young, an euljiro lawmaker said in a tweet after the premiere, “recognizing that human life is more important than corporate profit.”

There is little reason for SHARPS to ratchet down the pressure on the new ruling party which has a mixed record at best on disciplining Samsung and other big corporations.

An English-subtitled version of Stories from the Cleanroom will be available by August 2017.

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.

Stolen Donation Box

On June 23 night, a donation box at SHARPS’s sit-in was stolen.  SHARPS called police, who said they would check CCTV footage in the area.  Samsung’s own CCTVs watch the sit-in from every possible angle, and its security guards set points around SHARPS’s canopy.  The company would unlikely assist the police’s investigations.  However, you can help SHARPS.  You can wire your donations to the following account:

Account Holder:  Banolim

Bank: Kookmin Bank

Bank Address: 10 Yeouido-dong Seoul Korea

Account Number: 043901-04-206831

SWIFT Code: CZNBKRSE

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KimMi

The KCOMWEL has appeal a court order to grant workers compensation to Kim Mi-seon (in the picture), a former Samsung employee suffering from multiple sclerosis, while it recently decided to not appeal a decision in favor of workers comp claims by  another former Samsung employee who fell victim to the same condition.

South Korea’s workers compensation agency has decided against appealing a higher-court order to grant workers compensation benefits to a Samsung cluster victim, a rare move for the agency which often does not approve workers comp claims until claimants exhaust their legal recourse.

Window To Appeal

As of June 17, the KCOMWEL passed up a three-week window to appeal a May 26 higher-court ruling that reversed a lower court decision and ordered the agency to approve workers compensation for Lee So-jeong ( a pseudonym at her request).  The 33-year-old former chip-line operator of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. fell victim to multiple sclerosis in 2008, about three years after she resigned from the company where she began to work at the age of 19.

Six Years of Waiting

The KCOMWEL’s procrastination and the ensuing courtroom tit-for-tat meant that Yi had to wait for six years to receive workers compensation for the condition of which she had no family history and that is so rare that it only affects 3.5 in every 100,000 Koreans.

Samsung is an enabler of the KCOMWEL’s negligence as it routinely withholds information on chemicals used in chip production on the pretext of trade secrecy.  Regulators and courts often remain complacent even as years of procedural and legal runaround frequently ruin already-vulnerable cluster victims financially and emotionally.

Victim of Bureaucratic Runaround

The case in point:  Kim Mi-seon, is a 37-year-old former Samsung worker and a victim of multiple sclerosis.  In Feb. 2017, the KCOMWEL appealed a ruling in favor of her workers comp claims.  Her earlier legal victory could have been a landmark.  Kim was the first victim from Samsung’s LCD unit to have successfully claimed workers comp, after, in 2012-2014, the agency and the court denied three co-workers workers comp.

Now wheelchair-ridden and legally blind, Kim has also imploded financially to the point that SHARPS had to organize an urgent fund drive in April-May of 2017 to help her to pay some of overdue medical expenses.

In Nov. 2014 and Jan. 2016, the workers comp agency appealed two separate rulings in favor of two women victims assisted by SHARPS.

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.

 

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Ipen

Source: IPEN website

 

Five global worker-safety advocacy groups have released a joint statement urging South Korea’s governing party to promptly act on its agreement with SHARPS.

“The recent framework agreement signed by the Minjoo Party and SHARPS provides key objectives for worker safety policies,” said the five groups in the joint statement on June 15, 2017, pointing to the framework agreement that the party and SHARPS signed on May 7, two days before Minjoo candidate Moon Jae-in won the presidency in a snap election.

Act now

“We encourage the Minjoo Party to begin work to concretize this framework as soon as possible,” said the groups, led by the IPEN, a global anti-industrial waste network.  “In particular, point one dealing with the negotiations between SHARPS and Samsung should be addressed immediately.”

The following are full texts of the joint statement and the framework agreement:

To the Minjoo Party of Korea:

We represent international networks that have been focusing for many years on human rights, occupational health and environmental health in the global electronics industry. We stand in solidarity with SHARPS during their historic 600+ day sit-in at Samsung.

The recent framework agreement signed by the Minjoo Party and SHARPS (see below) provides key objectives for worker safety policies including right-to-know, protecting sub-contractor workers, and strengthening enforcement and penalties to increase corporate accountability.

We encourage the Minjoo Party to begin work to concretize this framework as soon as possible. In particular, point one dealing with the negotiations between SHARPS and Samsung should be addressed immediately to facilitate an appropriate solution to the issue of Samsung’s occupational disease issues which have been documented by SHARPS, in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and in several UN reports submitted to the Human Rights Council. Comprehensive implementation of the Minjoo Party – SHARPs framework agreement could make a significant contribution to worker safety in the electronics industry and help advance global standards.

Signed,

Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) 

Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV)

GoodElectronics Network (GE)

International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT)

IPEN

 

Minjoo Party – SHARPS Framework Agreement

  1. The Minjoo Party empathizes with SHARPS for taking issue with Samsung’s own compensation scheme and will put efforts into having negotiations resumed between Samsung and SHARPS in order to seek a rightful solution to the issue of Samsung worker’s occupational diseases.

  2. The Minjoo Party will put efforts into improving statutes that strengthen civil and criminal penalties against corporations for serious and/or frequent industrial accidents for employers and for covering up such accidents.

  3. The Minjoo Party will put efforts into preventing the outsourcing of risk by strengthening penalties for safety and public-health violations throughout the supply chain.

  4. The Minjoo Party will put efforts into developing a transparent disclosure process for hazardous chemicals to better hold employers accountable and to ensure employees’ right to know about their exposure to industrial safety risks.

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.

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Sharron

On May 29, 2017, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, spoke at a teach-in in front of SHARPS’s sit-in.

As SHARPS’ sit-in has surpassed the 600 day mark, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, visited the very site where families of Samsung’s cluster victims and SHARPS advocates have been squatting in protest of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. for scuppering negotiations.

Solidary of 180 Million Workers Worldwide

“Thanks for your amazing tenacity in holding this company [Samsung] to account,” Burrow greeted SHARPS activists and supporters on May 29, 2017 evening, as SHARPS was about to wrap up the 601st day of its sit-in.  “I am bringing with me the solidarity of 180 million workers around the world.”

Corporate Empire Built on Lies

Burrow focused her 30-minute talk on Samsung’s vast global supply chains, which are plagued by rampant violations of labor and human rights.

“When you look at Samsung, it was, in fact, already based on lies,” the ITUC general secretary said, pointing to the ITUC’s findings: Samsung relies on multi-layered, complex supply chains to hire casual workforces globally.  Samsung said there were 320 thousand workers in its supply chains.  However, the ITUC found there were 1.5 million globally, many of them working on short-term contracts for sub-subsistence wages.

On May 30, in a meeting with South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, Burrow raised the issue of SHARPS with him, along with other major labor concerns regarding South Korea.

Higher Court:  Samsung Victim’s Multiple Sclerosis Is Occupationally Caused

In a rare turnaround, Seoul’s higher court reversed a lower-court decision and declared a Samsung victim’s multiple sclerosis occupationally caused.  The ruling was the first of its kind for an occupational-disease victim who worked at Samsung’s chip line.  Earlier in Feb. 2017, a lower court ruled a Samsung LCD worker’s multiple sclerosis was occupationally caused.

The Lack of Information

The victim, 33 year-old Lee So-jeong (a pseudonym at her request), began to work at Samsung’s semiconductor lab in 2003 when she was only 18 years old.  She resigned in 2005 as her health declined.  In 2008, she began to suffer from partial facial paralysis, which led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

In 2013, after KCOMWEL rejected her workers compensation claim, citing the lack of information of chemicals involved and her short employment time, Lee filed an administrative lawsuit.  And the lower court reiterated KCOMWEL’s reasoning.

Samsung often frustrates legal proceedings by its occupational-disease victims by withholding information on chemical material on the pretext of trade secrecy.  And regulators and courts have to date remained complacent, allowing such maneuvers.

Capture

A new report  is now available for download on multiple methanol-caused vision losses at Samsung’s and LG’s supply chains.

New Report on Samsung’s and LG’s Supply Chains

Solidary for Workers’ Health, a Seoul-based labor health advocacy group, published an English-language report on methanol-caused vision-impairments that last year affected at least six of Samsung’s and LG Electronics’ subcontractor workers.

The report, The Blind—A Report on Methanol Poisoning Cases in Supply Changes for Samsung and LG Electronics in Korea can be downloaded in PDF at http://laborhealth.or.kr/43375.

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.

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woowonshik

On May 7, SHARPS and the Minjoo Party agreed to a policy framework regarding Samsung’s occupational-disease cluster.

SHARPS and the party of South Korea’s Presidential frontrunner have agreed to a policy framework aimed at resolving the occupational disease cluster of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.—one of the most critical milestones in ten years of advocacy campaigning for more than 200 former Samsung employees contracted with a variety of blood disorders.

Four-Point Framework

On May 7, SHARPS and the Minjoo Party of Korea agreed to a four-point framework that incorporates SHARPS’s longstanding demands.  The following are the four points:

  1. The Minjoo Party empathizes with SHARPS for taking issue with Samsung’s own compensation scheme and will put efforts into having negotiations resumed between Samsung and SHARPS so to seek a rightful solution to the issue of Samsung’s occupational disease.

  2. The Minjoo Party will put efforts into improving statutes that strengthen civil and criminal penalties for corporations for serious and/or frequent industrial accidents for employers for covering up such accidents.

  3. The Minjoo Party will put efforts into preventing the outsourcing of risk by strengthening penalties for safety and public-health violations along the supply chain.

  4. The Minjoo Party will put efforts into developing a transparent disclosure process for hazardous chemicals to better hold employers accountable and to ensure employees’ right to know for exposure to industrial safety risks.

Ten Years

The agreement is of significant meaning.  It is the first of its kind that SHARPS has reached with a major political party.  In 2014, a small left-leaning Justice Party, in vain, attempted to mediate a deal for SHARPS with Samsung.

Moon Jae-in, Minjoo’s Presidential candidate, will likely be elected President in a snap election scheduled for May 9.  In recent years, SHARPS has been a favorite campaign destination for many Presidential hopefuls.  However, Moon is the first-ever major Presidential candidate that has signed a pledge with SHARPS regarding Samsung.

“It’s been ten years since I first met with Hwang Sang-ki, the father of the first known Samsung victim, Hwang Yu-mi,” said lawmaker Woo Won-shik, who signed the agreement on the party’s behalf.  “Moon has expressed his strong willingness to help SHARPS and Samsung resume dialogue.”

Hwang replied: “The new government must implement this agreement in good faith.”

“Samsung must promise sincere dialogue, a truthful apology, and comprehensive compensation,” Hwang concluded, reiterating SHARPS’s demands.

Turns and Twists

The would-be ruling party’s posturing toward Samsung and SHARPS has to date been erratic at most. Since 2013 the Minjoo Party, and its predecessor, released only one statement on SHARPS or Samsung’s cluster.

In 2016, the Minjoo Party recruited Yang Hyang-ja, Samsung’s 50-year-old woman executive, as a “female role model ”

Yang is something of a legend among many young women in South Korea as she has climbed up the corporate ladder at a male-dominated Samsung to a PhD, and  a job as R&D director from high-school graduate office secretary.

In March 2017, Yang was forced by a flurry of public criticism to make a public apology, after she, in a luncheon with reporters, branded SHARPS “professional protesters” and the independent Korean Confederation of Trade Unions labor aristocrats.

Non-binding

In all fairness, on March 13, Moon apologized to SHARPS for Yang’s remarks at a mass rally in Seoul, calling on all presidential candidates to pledge to improve public and workplace safety.

The agreement is non-binding—SHARPS would likely find little reason to let up on the pressure on Samsung, the government or elected officials.

MoonandHan.jpg

Moon Jae-in, Minjoo’s presidential candidate, met with Han Hye-kyung, a Samsung cluster victim at a mass rally in central Seoul on March 13.  Source:  Pressian.com

Repeat Tragedy

SHARPS’s latest political breakthrough came on the heels of yet another fatal accident at a Samsung plant.  On May 1, six workers were killed and more than 20 were injured when a mobile crane crashed into and felled a fixed crane at the shipyard of Samsung Heavy Industries Co. Ltd in Geoje, Korea.

All six fatalities were temporary workers.  The cause of the crash is still under investigation although eyewitnesses said the mobile crane operator, a regular employee, missed the signal by a temporary worker.

Repeat Negligence

Samsung bungled first-response efforts, according to an expose by independent news site The Voice of the People.  The company did not bring in government paramedics during the first hour of the accident, during which its own first responders failed to stop the hemorrhaging of a victim who eventually died.

Samsung Heavy Industries’ negligence is just a repeat of Samsung Electrics’ botched response to fatal gas leaks at its semiconductor lab about four years ago.

In January 2013,  Samsung used outsourced first-response teams to stem two separate leaks of Hydrofluoric acid at the chip lab in Hwaseong, Korea, which left one worker dead and four injured.

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.

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sNU

On March 12, student journalists of Daehak Shinmun published an extra to protest press censorship at Seoul National University.

A student newsweekly at one of South Korea’s most prestigious colleges has left blank the front page of its latest issue, after a report critical about Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. was censored by the college.

Blank Front Page

Daehak Shinmun, of Seoul National University, on March 12 published an extra with a blank front page, after its supervising professor censored an article about SHARPS’s advocacy campaigning for Samsung’s occupational-disease victims. 

Daehak Shinmun is the official student press funded entirely by Seoul National University, the country’s finest, where future elites go to school.  SNU was also a hotbed of student activism against political authoritarianism in the 1960s-1980s when students often protested the police over unwarranted seizure and censorship of the newspaper.

Labor Bias?

However, in the newspaper’s 65-year history, it was unprecedented for student journalists to raise their own funds to publish an extra in protest against the university’s own censorship.  According to Daehak Shinmun, in January, the newspaper’s faculty advisor, Prof. Leem Kyung-hoon, of political science and international relations, expunged a report about SHARPS, citing its bias in favor of Samsung-cluster victims.  Prof. Leem, whose PhD dissertation was about labor solidarity in Russia, rejected a proposal by student editors to expand the report to include Samsung’s view.

On March 8, 2017, he resigned from the supervisory position, but Daehak Shinmun journalists have yet to win the repeal of that professor’s seat on the editorial board.

LEEm

In Jan. 2017, Leem Kyung-hoon censored an article about SHARPS because he believed it was biased in favor of labor.  He earned a Ph.D from the University of Chicago in 1996, with a dissertation on labor solidarity and militancy in post-communist Russia.  Source: SNU website

Samsung and SNU   

It was not the first time that SNU students came to loggerheads with the administration over Samsung.  In January 2013, the university’s sociology department rescinded the appointment as visiting scholar of Hwang Chang-gyu, former semiconductor chief of Samsung, after fifteen days of strident protests by students and SHARPS supporters.  During his stint as president of semiconductors in 2004-2008, a cluster of blood disorders took hold at Samsung.

Hwang, a PhD in electronic engineering, had no grounding in sociology.  Nevertheless, the faculty said in a statement announcing the rescission: “Interpreting Dr. Hwang’s hiring as a move to desert labor and side with capital cannot rescue sociology from the 20th-century paradigm.”

SNU, Inc.

“Although there is nothing unusual about Samsung’s meddling in the press,” SHARPS said in a statement on March 13, “we are saddened and angered by the fact that such a thing is now happening to the college press.”

SNU student journalists’ protests came at a time when their university is declining in public accountability.  Incorporated in 2011, SNU is no longer a public institution.  The university now runs in the red and needs corporate funding.

On March 14, 2017, SNU mobilized hundreds of security guards to evict students who had been staging a sit-in for 153 days from the main building.  The eviction turned violent when the guards used fire hoses to shoot the protesters with blasts of high-pressure water.  The students were protesting the university’s plan to build a new campus, which will include upscale retirement homes and a five-star hotel.

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.

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March 5, 2017 marked ten years since the death of Hwang Yu-mi, the first publicly known victim of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.’s blood disorder cluster.  In 2007, Yu-mi died in the backseat of his father’s cab on her way home from what became her last hospital visit.  She was only 23 years old.  It was two years after her diagnosis with acute myelogenous leukemia and three years and a half after her employment with a semiconductor line at Samsung.

Her death, and Samsung’s denial of wrongdoing , led to her father Hwang Sang-ki and his advocates forming SHARPS in 2007.

To date, SHARPS has profiled 370 occupational-disease cases.  Of them, 79 former Samsung employees are now deceased, and only 14 cases won approval for workers compensation.

Meanwhile, Samsung has successfully been resisting outside efforts to enforce independent monitoring, even as its all-powerful PR machine spread an unsubstantiated impression that the world’s largest technology firm has made strides in improving workers safety.

On March 4, 2017, South Korea’s independent daily, the Hankyoreh, ran an exclusive interview with a woman  who worked in the past six years in Samsung’s semiconductor lab, where Yu-mi contracted leukemia.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the 25-year-old revealed an appalling picture of Samsung’s ongoing negligence in workers safety.  The following is a full translation of her interview which can be found at here.   All brackets [ ] are added.

 

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On March 3-6, SHARPS held a series of rallies, pickets and teach-ins to mark 10 years since the death of Hwang Yu-mi, the first publicly known victim of Samsung’s occupational-disease cluster. 

Kim Su-mi (pseudonym), 25 years old, resigned in April 2016 from the Giheung semiconductor complex of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., where she had worked since 2010.  This was due to fears for what could happen to her if she continued to work there.  On Feb. 28, this reporter understood conditions at Samsung’s chip labs, based on an interview with Kim.

 That Damn Smell

For five years and eight months since Aug. 2010, Kim was an operator at the Giheung plant.  All operators of a total of 100 assigned to Line 5 were women.  They were divided into four teams, working from 6am-2pm; 2pm-10pm; 10pm-6am; and 10pm-6am, on a six-day revolving shift with two days’ break.

At work, after donning clean suits, the operators put containers in and out of machines. Each container holds 25 wafers.  Wafers are crystalline silicon used to fabricate integrated circuits.  They used microscopes to examine defective wafers and called engineers on errors.  They often ran [between lines], instead of waking.  It was a simple job., but some operators were too busy to take bathroom breaks.  Within a 50-minute break for lunch, they had to change suits to have meals at a cafeteria, which was five minutes away by foot.  In effect, the lunch break was 20 minutes or so, which is so short that they often had to skip lunch.  “Senior co-workers, who are still in contact with me, still rarely eat lunch.  They binge-eat after-hours,” Kim said.  Working hours were generally in compliance with eight hours a day, with infrequent overtime.

“When [“the machine’s] doors opened, the smells wafted out—something like a blend of dark chocolate and gasoline.  To avoid it as much as possible, I pulled container like this,” said Kim, turning her face away as far as she could while pushing and pulling her hands together.

“They are not airtight containers.  Each wafer stood in an open container.  Wafers are grazed chemically.  The smells continued to flare as I carried them—so did they when I had to pull out wafers to check IDs.”

Photoresist deposing, or photolithography, involved a so-called PR solution, developer, acetone and thinner.  The PR solution is an amalgam of four to five chemicals.  Benzene is known to be among them.  In 2009 , an investigation, to determine the work-relatedness of Hwang Yumi’s death, by the Research Affairs of Seoul National University of Samsung labs turned up benzene.  However, Samsung denied the finding.

“The company alleged that all chemicals are consumed within the facility” said Lim Ja-woon, SHARPS’s lawyer, who accompanied Kim, “and that workers face only marginal exposure because each production point has exhaust and emission controls.”  Lim added, “what Kim said belies what Samsung alleges.”  The facility’s door should be locked until the smells are exhausted, however it has been suspected that the controls were loosened because it would take long for chemicals to be dissipate completely.  “Allegedly, the so-called interlocks were deliberately loosened because it would be too difficult to meet production quotas if they waited for the smells to be exhausted completely,” Lim said.

Menstrual Irregularity

Four months into working at Samsung, Kim felt there was something wrong with her body: irregular periods.  She had one period in two months at first and then in three months.  Her menstruation grew increasingly irregular.

A doctor diagnosed Kim with polycystic ovary syndrome.  The hormonal disorder was caused by her irregular periods, the doctor said, “it is not serious enough to be treated but needs observation.” COCP was prescribed to Kim.  She recovered, only temporarily.  An anxious Kim ask her co-workers about their health.

“Nine out of ten suffered from menstrual irregularity.  But all were hushed about it,” said Kim.  “It was a moot point as to whether this was caused by night-shift work or chemicals.  But that was it.  Nobody wanted to step forward.”

Leave On Your Own

There was an accident, too.  In the spring of 2011, Kim, still a new employee, evacuated from her line. It was when the strongest odor of her employment of five years and eight months took hold.  Extremely odorous orange gas wafted the line.  The gas got thicker and thicker.  Engineers could not determine the cause. The operators, on their own discretion, began to pull out.

“All left on their own because the company did not give any direction or instructions,” said Kim.  “When operators acted restively, there was little option for team leaders but to say, ‘get out now anyway; a PA announcement [for pullout] will follow soon.’”

Fresh Cut Lawn Smell

A PA announcement came, only after the odor dissipated and they returned to work.  “The company said it was from fresh-cut lawn.  That smell seeped into the factory.  It was chemical smokes and odors by anyone’s reckoning,” she said.  “This company… This not what it should be, I came to thought.”

Apart from the company’s announcement of “lawn smells,” Kim did not see any further explanations or measures from the company, she recalled.  “According to the report by Seoul National University in 2009, there was a log record showing that operators were not ordered to evacuate despite high-density gas leaks,” SHARPS’ Lim said.  “that accident in 2011 looked the same.”

From Photolithography to Photochemical Etching

As of July 5, 2013, line 5 went offline.  Lines can come and go, depending on technology.  Line 5 operators were reassigned to other lines.  Kim was transferred to Line 8, where she was responsible for photochemically etching circuits on wafers.

“I expected things could get better after the transfer, but there were few changes.  The equipment, which they said was the latest, still generated odors.  I had to inhale the nauseating smells every day,” Kim said.

Kim declined in health.  Her menstrual cramps grew worse, to the point that she lived off Tylenol.

Evacuation was frequent at Line 8.  In three years, there were six to eight instances.  When there was a likely leak, engineers came in to determine the cause, not taking any additional measure.  They were just told to stand by.  They began to evacuate when the smell became too severe to be disregarded.  No evacuation orders were issued.  They gathered in a corner, complaining about headaches, but not daring to leave sooner than others.  Engineers often took off their protective masks and sniffed about to find a leak.

“The Occupational Safety and Health Act gives a worker the right to refuse work,” said Lim.  “At a unionized workplace, an occupational safety and health committee, seated by a union representative, decides whether to restart work when there is a safety risk.”

“Anyway, in this case, the company should be responsible for the evacuation and return of employees,” SHARPS’ counsel continued: “It was just irrational to have them return to work just because odors dissipated.  They should have found a leak and ensured safety.”

Kim remembered that safety education was lax and conducted exclusively online once a month.  They clicked their way through education on screens installed through their shop floor.  After sixty clicks, “complete” showed up on-screen.  It was “useless education.” There was only one legitimate education program when she was employed and when she resigned.  Workers were required to attend a short five-minute discussion before regular monthly meetings and shift changes.   When women operators asked about the roles of various alert systems in the workplace, they were countered: “This is an area for engineers. Do women employees really need to know?”

“What was the most absurd was what happened after Samsung’s admission of wrongdoing (in Many 2014, Samsung vice chairman and CEO Kwon Oh-hyun made an official apology to occupational-disease victims).  There were many outside inspections.  The unit leaders told us to answer we received [safety] education when asked during an inspection.  We were told to stay after-hours to memorize answering tips and English acronyms for ethanol and so on.”

“Did they ever mention the fact that your workplace is where work-related diseases took hold,” asked Lim.  “Not once during the five years and eight months of my employment there,” Kim answered, saying.  “I can surely say this.”

“About half of [SHARPS’] 14 approved workers comp cases stemmed from photochemical etching jobs,” said Lim: “The occupationally caused fatal diseases in that part of the workplace means it’s a site of serious occupational accidents. They should have sufficiently warned the workers there of the risk because they worked at a more dangerous place in the factory.”

Failing Health

In 2015, five years into her job with Samsung, Kim went in for a comprehensive physical at a general hospital.  Some of her blood measurements were low enough to necessitate her taking exams regularly.  A test turned up a lump on the breasts.  She needed an additional test, which she found too expensive to take.  “My heath got definitely better after quitting the job,” Kim said.  “It was the job that has worsened my health.”  Her co-workers still work there despite their deteriorating health because they do not have alternatives, Kim added.

Over the five years and eight months of her employment with Samsung in Aug. 2010 through April 2016, Samsung’s representative director, Kwon made the apology (May 2014): the company initiated its own compensation scheme (September 2015); and it laid out measures to prevent the recurrence of an occupational disease cluster.

“It sometimes occurred to me that a disease can be hiding inside me,” said Kim.  “I should have resigned after a year.  All still work there because there is no other option.  It is hard for them to earn that kind of wage, and this is their first job after graduating high school.”

Over the period, Kim and her co-workers felt little changed.  The only noticeable change: when Kwon made the apology, Kim’s team leader wrote down a list of the diseases her team members suffered.  They did know who would be informed of the list or what measures were taken because of that survey.  One thing she could notice was they were since fitted with thinner masks.

No Manuals

“Little has changed,” said Paek Do-myung, the occupational medicine professor, of Seoul National University, who led the investigation of Samsung factory in 2009.  “A normal workplace would determine the cause of the accident, notify workers of it, and closely watch the situation before restarting operations.”

“They need a manual that clearly codifies the roles of workers, managers, and safety officer,” Paek said.  “They did not have one in 2009—Nor does it appear they have one now.”

“The issue is essentially simple,” Roh Sangchul, occupational medicine professor at Dankook University, said.  “The way Samsung accesses the issue is secretive.”

“Samsung has an occupational health institute in-house, where there are experts,” Roh said.  “Right or wrong, it will be hard for them to be impartial.  They should be open to outside expertise.”

Last year Samsung agreed with SHARPS and the Family Committee to new safety measures including a third-party ombudsman committee.  “If implemented a little bit, it will pry open a small hole for the first time to observe Samsung’s reclusive occupational and health measure from an independent perspective,” SHARPS opined then.

However, to date, the Ombudsman Committee has accomplished nothing.

“We opened doors to outside experts through the Ombudsman Committee which is now conducting a comprehensive review of [safety programs].  We are waiting for their findings.”  a Samsung spokesperson said.  “While the issue of occupational disease at semiconductor lines is not clearly substantiated anywhere in the world.”  The spokesperson went on emphasizing: “This is more about how it is perceived.  We need to try to see the issue objectively.”

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.

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