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Hazards issue 137, January-March 2017
Toxic company: First cancer, now Samsung jobs linked to multiple sclerosis
The reputation of Samsung, battered by a catastrophic product recall and a bribery scandal that brought down both the company’s heir apparent and Korea’s president, is in tatters.


But while Samsung vice-chair Lee Jae-yong has been arrested and President Park Geun-hye ousted by a court, the global electronics giant’s workforce are the real casualties.

In the first week of March 2017, campaign group SHARPS held a series of rallies, pickets and teach-ins to mark 10 years since the death of Hwang Yu-mi, the first publicly acknowledged victim of a major Samsung occupational disease cluster.

Since then, a SHARPS dossier has recorded at least 79 workers who have died of cancer after being exposed to the chemicals used in the Samsung production process.

In clear contrast to the company’s financial crimes, and despite irrefutable evidence of corporate neglect, these deaths have gone unpunished. The company instead is resisting calls to hand over information on the substances and exposures faced by their workforce.

It is not just cancer. In a ground-breaking 10 February 2017 judgment, a Seoul court ruled that the multiple sclerosis suffered by a former worker on the Samsung Electronics LCD production line is a work-related disease.

The Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favour of multiple sclerosis sufferer Kim Mi-seon. Supported by SHARPS, she had asked the court to force the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMEL) to reverse its decision not to approve her request for compensation for medical treatment.

Kim contracted multiple sclerosis while working on the LCD production line for Samsung Electronics. She began working at its Giheung factory in 1997, when she was 17-years-old. She was diagnosed in March 2000 and left the company three months later.

The judge noted there had already been four confirmed cases of multiple sclerosis among workers at Samsung Electronics. “The number of patients at Samsung Electronics is much higher than the standard prevalence rate, and no other risk factors were confirmed for Kim aside from her work environment,” the judge said.

Lim Ja-woon, the attorney who represented Kim, said: “Samsung and its suppliers repeatedly defied court requests to provide chemical data used in LCD production.” SHARPS said that since May 2013, Samsung has complied with only one out of the 13 separate disclosure requests filed by Lim with the court.

On 27 February 2017, KCOMEL announced it was appealing the verdict.


COURT OUT    Kim Mi-seon started her lawsuit in 2013, after the official compensation agency KCOMEL refused to recognise her multiple sclerosis as a work-related illness. In a 2017 judgment, judge Lee Gyu-hun overturned the KCOMEL decision, concluding: “The fact is that Kim was exposed to organic solvents such as acetone on the job; that she worked on shifts, including a night shift, before the age of 20; that she worked on a night shift in a sealed space; and that she did not have enough exposure to ultraviolet rays appear to have been factors that caused or exacerbated her multiple sclerosis.”

CORRUPT SON  Lee Jae-yong (above right), 48, a vice chair at Samsung Electronics and the son and heir apparent of Samsung chair Lee Kun-hee, was arrested in February 2017 on bribery charges. The $36m he is alleged to have given to President Park Geun-hye (above left) and her close friend Choi Soon-sil was intended to smooth a leadership transition that would see him replace his ailing father. Instead the developing scandal saw President Park ousted by a court on 10 March 2017, and also facing the possibility of jail time.

SAMSUNG EXPOSED  The dangerous and abusive employment practices used by Samsung were challenged publicly by the global union confederation ITUC, in a high profile ‘Samsung Exposed’ social media campaign. Ahead of the industry’s showcase, the Mobile World Congress, held in Barcelona from 27 February to 2 March 2017, the union body said: “At least 79 workers have died of cancer related diseases after being exposed to chemicals used in the Samsung production process. And did the company take responsibility? Indeed not - they refused to name the chemical that led to the deaths, citing trade secrets.”

VISIBLE ISSUE    The SHARPS campaign has tried quiet negotiation but has found court action and protests have been necessary to make Samsung listen. From 3-6 March 2017, SHARPS held a series of rallies, pickets and teach-ins to mark 10 years since the death of Hwang Yu-mi, the first publicly acknowledged victim of Samsung's hazardous workplaces. A sit-in at Samsung D’light, the company’s exhibition space in south Seoul, has ran continually since October 2015.

SUPPLY CHAINED   Samsung has a history of medieval conditions for the estimated 1,500,000 workers entrenched in a vast and shadowy web of subcontractors and subsidiaries that runs deep throughout the region. Campaigners from the Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) point to a leaked Samsung PowerPoint presentation - intended for the eyes of corporate bosses only – that decrees specific “countermeasures” to be used to “dominate employees.” It instructs managers to: “isolate employees”, “punish leaders” and “induce internal conflicts.” AMRC reports instances of grave abuse, where Samsung “tapped workers’ phones, followed them, and approached their families with threats.”

HONEST TRUTH  “Samsung broke the social promise and undermined the human right of victims,” one placard reads. Others note: “Don't kill any more. Don't deceive any more”, and “Shame on Samsung which avoids responsibility on the workers' illnesses and breaks its own promise on the dialogue.”

BLIND INJUSTICE   When she began working at a Samsung Electronics factory as a semiconductor assembly line worker at the age of 18, Kim Mi-seon says she was given a clean bill of health by company doctors. By the time Kim left three years later, she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which scientists believe is triggered by environmental factors. Now, the nervous system disease has left Kim nearly blind. Even over a decade after being diagnosed with MS, 35-year-old Kim can only shake her head and say, “I didn’t think I would one day be unable to recognize my own mother.”

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The reputation of Samsung, battered by a catastrophic product recall and a bribery scandal that brought down both the company’s heir apparent and Korea’s president, is in tatters.

Further information
ITUC Samsung Exposed campaign

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Photos: Jeong-ok Kong