Hazards issue 110, April-June 2010
On 31 March 2010, 23-year-old Park Ji-yeon died of leukaemia. She contracted the blood cancer at the age of 20 after working at the Samsung semiconductor factory in Onyang, South Korea. Her case is one of a cluster affecting workers at the microelectronics giant.
Campaigners have so far collated evidence suggesting 23 Samsung workers in Korea have suffered from haematopoietic cancers like leukaemia or lymphoma, and at least nine workers have died. Samsung workers are also known to suffer from skin disorders, neuropathy, fertility problems including miscarriages, and chronic nosebleeds.
On 2 April 2010, following a funeral ceremony for Park Ji-yeon, Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry (SHARPS), a coalition of trade unions and campaign groups, organised a press conference at Samsung headquarters in Seoul, calling the company to account for the cancer deaths. The police broke up the event and detained seven activists. They were held until 5 April, when they were released without charge.
SHARPS, Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC), Asian Network for the Rights Of Occupational Accident Victims (ANROAV) and the International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT) are seeking support for a petition to the president of the Korean government Gee-sung Choi, the CEO of Samsung Electronics, the Korean minister of labour, the president of the Korea Workers' Compensation & Welfare Service and the head of the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency.
In addition to demands for justice for cancer victims and improvements in safety standards, the campaigners say Samsung “must disclose to the workers and the public the truth about the hazards of working in the semiconductor industry” and “must stop suppressing workers in their struggles for a safe and fair workplace.”
The response from the electronics giant has been to launch a major public relations charm offensive. On 15 April 2010, Samsung invited reporters to a microchip plant south of Seoul to demonstrate its manufacturing process and to provide assurances about its commitment to safety. “There is no risk,” said Cho Soo-in, president of the company's memory division, adding: “From now on, we will openly conduct management that has its basis in communication.”
Injury lawyer Mandy Hawes, who has won landmark legal cases for US workers suffering devastating health problems including cancers as a result of working in the electronic industry and who is supporting the Korean campaigners, posed this question in response: “How many more electronics workers would be alive and well if over the past 30 years Samsung and its semiconductor industry brethren had made hazard communication as much as a priority as ‘branding’ or other market-based ‘communication’, strategies?”
APPROPRIATE RESPONSE? In April 2010, seven protesters outside Samsung’s Seoul HQ were arrested and detained for three days without charge. They had levelled a clear accusation at Samsung, shouting: “You are responsible for the death of Park Ji-yeon.”
TWITTER CONDOLENCES After the leukaemia death of 23-year-old Samsung worker Park Ji-yeon on 31 March 2010, the company went on Twitter to offer an expression of mourning. But the company’s management is insisting Samsung’s problem is not one of chemicals and cancer, but of communication. The young victim was featured on protesters’ placards.
COMPANY DENIALS Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry (SHARPS) says “Samsung denies all responsibility” for the cancer deaths. It is calling on the company to come clean about the health and safety problems in microchip production and to stop suppressing efforts by its employees to win improved conditions at Samsung factories.
DEADLY EVIDENCE SHARPS say the pattern of cancer deaths at Samsung’s Korean factories “bears a striking resemblance to the pattern of cancer deaths among IBM ‘chip’ workers in the US and to other electronics cancer clusters around the world.”
CONTINUING CAMPAIGN The SHARPS campaign, which has support from Korean unions and the global metal union federation IMF, made the Samsung cancer scandal a focus for 28 April Workers’ Memorial Day activities in Korea.
STOP SAMSUNG Samsung workers with cancer, their families and supporters launched a new ‘Stop Samsung’ website on 23 April 2010. They say it “presents a compelling case for why those of us who depend on our cell phones, our TVs, our computers, and other high-tech things that now dominate our lives should care about the people – mostly young women – who make them.”
KEEPING CHEMICALS On 3 March 2010, Greenpeace climbers scaled the Benelux headquarters of the Korean electronics giant, displaying the message ‘Samsung = Broken Promises’ in giant letters on the front of the building. The peaceful protest targeted the company for breaking its promises to eliminate key toxic substances from its products.
Photo: (c) Philip Reynaers/Greenpeace
Hazards issue 110
Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC)
Sign the SHARPS petition