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On Oct. 31, Choi Jong-beom, a 32-year-old Samsung contractor, killed himself in protest over his employer’s harsh labor control. He is survived by his wife and a 10-month-old daughter. Source: SHARPS

The supply chain of Samsung Electronics is shrouded in a series of avoidable deaths as two electronics repairmen died within about 30 days apart, after the world’s largest technology company stepped up pressure on its after-sale network in a move to crush an ongoing unionization drive and to retain its chokehold on labor discipline.

Choi Jong-beom, a repairman, was found dead in his car on Oct. 31.  He died of carbon monoxide poisoning as evidenced by consumed charcoals found in the vehicle. Choi was a contractor for Samsung TSP, an after-sale service provider of Samsung Electronics Service, the wholly owned unit of Samsung Electronics.  The following is the suicide notes that the 31-year-old worker texted to his co-workers and union leaders:

This is Choi Jong-beom.  Please capture [the screenshot] of this text message [for me]. It’s been excruciating for me to work at Samsung Electronics Service.  It’s pained me because I was starving.  It’s been excruciating for me to see others suffering [like I am].  I could not act the way [the late labor activist] Chon Tae-il did, but I made the choice.  I wish I could help anyway.

Chon Tae-il was a 22-year-old worker who set himself afire in 1970 in protest of rampant violations of labor law in the South Korean garment industry of that era.

Death and Suicide

Choi’s death came on the heels of the tragedy of Yim Hyeon-woo, the 36-year-old Samsung repairman who died in late September of an overwork-caused brain hemorrhage.  In the four months leading to his death, Yim worked spent an average of 60 hours a week repairing Samsung products at homes and offices.

Apologies and Smearing

In a rare move, Samsung Electronics Service expressed regret over Choi’s death Nov. 1.  However, its contractor—and Choi’s employer—Samsung TSP quickly smeared him.  Samsung TSP CEO Yi Je-keun said Choi, an employee of four years, took home an average of KRW 4.1 million (U$3,900) and KRW 5 million (U$4,700) during peak season.

A survey by the independent daily Hankyeoreh <Korean> belied CEO Yi’s allegations. According to the newspaper, for September this year,  a Samsung repairman of six years working in Pohang, the city about the size of but richer than Chonan where Yim worked, took home KRW 1.05 million (U$980) after out-of-pocket expenses and costs.  The take-home pay is slightly higher than a legally mandated subsistence level of KRW1.01M (U$942).

Shifting Costs

Both Yim and Choi were contractors who worked for regional contractors for Samsung Electronics Service, to which Samsung Electronics outsources all after-sale services such as repairs and maintenance of its garden-variety of electronics goods.  Samsung Electronics Services owns only nine of its 107 repair branches.  The remaining 98 are contractors who hire the most of Samsung’s about 6,000-strong repair staff mainly on a piecework basis.

The multi-layered supply chain enables the global electronics giant  to ruthlessly pass costs on to the bottom of the hierarchy.  Choi, his wife, and their ten-month-old daughter did not literally starve because his pay managed to stay above the subsistence level.  However, Choi often skipped meals to keep up with schedule which often ran from 7am through 9pm in peak season.

Crushing the Union

Choi’s death came amid rising tensions between Samsung and its 6,000-strong repair staff.  In August, about 1,600 workers from 64 branches formed a trade union, demanding Samsung Electronics Service to grant them full-time status in the company.  Samsung has since been transferring jobs from unionized branches to non-unionized ones, cutting the unionists’ already meager wages.

Management’s harassment played the role in Choi’s suicide.  A few days before his death, Samsung TSP CEO Yi threw expletives at Choi over a flimsy customer complaint against him.

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SHARPS and labor activists in June picked Amotech, a Samsung supplier, where three workers died of overwork during the first three months of this year.

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd is dumping high-risk jobs into outsourcers, a SHARPS activist said at a conference on August 7.  The world’s largest technology company’s lack of follow-through is helping ensure long working hours, high employee turnover, and negligence in safety measures, making many Samsung contractor facilities dangerous places to work.

“QTS, a Samsung contractor, does not allow workers to open windows at their workplaces to protect the trade secret of Samsung, even though their shops are poorly ventilated,” Kong Jeong-ok, a physician with SHARPS said at the conference on the conditions of workers at Samsung’s contractors hosted by SHARPS in Seoul.

At QTS in the city of Yongin, South Korea, employees, most of them women in their mid-40s and older, put memory chips with solder bumps into high-temperature reflow furnaces  They put the refurbished chips into the cleaning tank to remove impurities and into the chemical ovens to dry them.

The women have to do these high-risk, chemically drenched jobs with bare hands.

The only protective gear provided by the company was disposable masks and plastic gloves.  The gloves are useless because they are too big to use to handle tiny memory chips.  Management tells the employers to wear gas masks when they expect outside inspections.

Officially, QTS workers work from 9am till 6pm.  However, they often work overtime until 9am next day, meaning that they worked a full twenty-four hour shift.

QTS, with about 20-25 on its full-time payroll, seasonally hires up to 70 or more.  A full-timer earns KRW 900,000 (US$810) in base salary a month, plus KRW 800,000 (US$720)-KRW 1 million (US$900) in overtime, compared with South Korea’s per-capita GDP of US$31,700 for 2012.

Low pay and poor working conditions have increased employee turnover.  Only about ten employees have worked at QTS for a multiple number of years.  Among them, four were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010-12. In 2010, one woman employee in her mid-40s, died of lung cancer.

Amotech, another Samsung contractor posted a 93 percent increase in sales in 2012,” said Dr. Kong.  However, the remarkable expansion was the result of Amotech employees’ sacrifices, she added.

Over the course of three months of January to March 2013, three employees died of acute conditions brought on by overwork at the Inchoen, South Korea ceramic chipmaker that makes 45.6 percent of its sales to Samsung, Apple Inc, HTC Corporation, and Lenovo.

In January, an electroplater in his fifties died of acute cerebral infarction.  He passed out after having worked 12 hours a day for days. (His identity is withheld at his family’s request.).

In March, Yim Seung-hyun, 31 years old, died of cerebral hemorrhage after having worked 12 hours a day for 19 months.  Since December 2012, he took only four days off and worked on all weekends.

In the same month, a mid-ranking technician, Kwon Tae-young died. Kwon often worked 15 to 26 hours straight to reduce the defect rates of common mode filters, Amotech’s strategic item, used to reduce the noise levels of Smartphones.

Poor base pay means many Amotech employees are forced to work overtime only to stay afloat.  For January 2013, Yim got only one day off on New Year’s Day.  He worked an average of 12.5 hours a day to take home KRW 1.08 million (US$972) in base salary and KRW1.89 million (US$1,700) in overtime.

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SHARPS on August 7 hosted a conference on working conditions at Samsung contractor facilities.

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A bird’s eye view of Samsung’s Hwaseong plant where hydrofluoric-acid leaks Jan. 28 killed one worker and injured four others. Samsung did not contact authorities for 26 hours after the chemical leaks although the plant is ringed largely with residential homes.

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 its chip plant, about 70 kilometers south of Seoul, in Jan. 27-28.

Fatal Leaks

On Jan. 27, about at 1:00pm local time, a 500-liter (132 gallon) tank at Samsung’s Hwaseong, Gyeonggi-do plant began to leak diluted hydrofluoric acid gas through a melted gasket, the independent newspaper Hankyoreh reported.  The tank reportedly leaked again at 5am the following day.  A total of ten liters of the acidic gas leaked.

Hydrofluoric acid, used to remove impurities from chip wafers, is a potentially dangerous industrial-grade substance that can immediately and permanently damage lungs and corneas.

At 11pm, Samsung called four workers of maintenance firm STI to fix leak.  The world’s largest chipmaker did not report the leaks until 3pm, about an hour after an STI worker died from exposure to the acid and four others were hospitalized for chest pain and rashes.

Go Unreported And Unprotected

Contrary to earlier press reports claiming that the dead worker did not have any protective gear save a mask, the 34 years old, identified by his last name, Park, wore a protective suit after inspecting the leak, according to a Yonhap News report.   The other four’s protective suits proved inadequate, as they all were exposed to the gas and were hospitalized.  Over the course of about nine hours, the five contractors struggled to stop the leaks with plastic bags, and to remove the melted gasket.

Exemption

Samsung did not immediately report the leak to authorities, in breach of regulations.  However, the local government of the Gyeonggi-do province has exempted the company from a higher version of safety inspections. On a regular round of inspections of local factories less than three months ago, the government failed to inspect the gasket that leaked Jan. 27, Newsis News reported.

Risky Outsourcing

The leak accident revealed that Samsung has been outsourcing safety management to contractors, despite being heavily dependent on hazardous materials in chip production.   It also showed contract workers are more likely to be exposed to hazardous conditions.  Last year, after a series of revelations of excessive overtime and irregularities at its Chinese contractors, Samsung promised to improve working conditions across its supply chain.

However, harsh working conditions are not limited to its overseas contractors.   In October 2012, SHARPS profiled Kim Ki-cheol, 27 years old, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia after having worked as a contract wafer operator at the Hwaseong plant since 2006.

On SHARPS

As of March 2012, SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and aplastic anemia after employment in the electronics industry in South Korea.   As of June 2, 2012, 63 of the 155 have died.  The majority of the workers, 138, were employed at Samsung Electronics, Samsung Electro-Mechanics and Samsung SDS—the three electronics affiliates of the Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate.  Among the 63 deaths were 56 Samsung employees.

Correction 1: The original version of this story said Samsung did not contact authorities during the first 15 hours after the leaks.  However, a Samsung spokesman on Jan. 28 evening said that the casket began to leak on Jan. 27 about at 11am.  The contract workers began to repair the leak at 11pm.    Samsung did not report the leaks for 26 hours after the leaks.   The post has been revised to reflect the correction.

Correction 2: The original version of this story cited a Herald News  report and said during its latest inspection of the Samsung plant four months ago, the government did not inspect the casket that leaked Jan. 28   However,  Newsis News cited  a government source and said the province government did not inspect the casket during inspections it performed of 28 plants in its jurisdiction on Oct. 11-17, 2012.  The post has been revised to reflect the correction.

Correction 3: The original version of this story cited several Korean press reports and said the dead maintenance worker did not wear a protective suit.  On Jan. 29, Samsung confirmed the 34-year-old known as Park actually wore a protective suit after protests by his family.  The post has been revised to reflect the correction.

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