CHUNCHEON, South Korea — Han Hye-kyung’s wheelchair is folded and leaning against the wall at the apartment entrance two floors below. There is no need for her wheelchair in this tiny apartment. The main room has no furniture, just appliances: a refrigerator, stove, sink and a second refrigerator for storing kimchee, the spicy fermented vegetable dish. There is a bedroom on either side of the room and a bathroom.
Han sits on a cushion on the floor of her mother’s apartment hugging her knees and staring. Her head bobs ever so slightly. She’s wearing pink pajama bottoms and a sweater with pink hearts. Her long, black hair is in a ponytail.
It has been 10 years since she had her brain tumor removed and began rehabilitation in a hospital for the elderly. She’s had a lot of time to think.
“So at first I thought it was my fate,” Han said. “I tried to comfort myself. But as time went by I got angrier. What can I say? It is Samsung’s fault. Samsung is to blame.”
Han is among hundreds of former employees of Samsung, the world’s largest manufacturer of consumer electronics devices, who believe their cancers were caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at work — allegations that were made by American electronics workers two decades ago. More than 70 Korean workers have died of their illnesses, according to an advocacy group.
Samsung says its factories are safe and denies that workers were sickened by their jobs. But former workers have won significant court cases, prompting the company to make a public apology for taking too long to show concern for sick and dying employees. In August, Samsung agreed to establish an $85.8 million fund to provide financial aid to such workers and their families. “We provide this financial support regardless of whether there may be a correlation between the workplace environment and employee illness,” the company said in a statement.
Like most at Samsung, Han was recruited in high school during the annual spring examinations the company holds to find new workers. As many as 200,000 register to take the test each year, and only those with top marks are offered jobs.
Han started work at Samsung in 1996 with big plans. She would stay five or six years, save her money and return home to open a store with her mother.
The work was repetitive. She glued wires and electronic pieces onto a circuit board using a cream she later learned was lead-based. Her thin paper mask didn’t keep out the fumes, she said, and within a few months she developed flulike symptoms and problems with her menstrual cycle.
The doctors couldn’t pinpoint the problem or normalize her cycle, so after almost six years she quit her job. Her health didn’t improve; instead, she started having problems with her balance. In October of 2005, four years after she quit, an MRI revealed a brain tumor. She was 28 years old.
“I did not know about the brain tumor before the operation,” Han said. “I found out about it after having the operation, so when I woke up I found that my body was not that of a normal person. I found myself having become a disabled person.”
She’s been home in Chuncheon for only a few months. She can’t walk and struggles to talk. She gets exercise and swimming physiotherapy and is learning to use a computer. At 38, she wants independence. She also wants Samsung to accept responsibility for her tumor, which, by one doctor’s recent description, was “in between benign and malignant.”
Lack of disclosure on chemicals
No one knows for sure how many chemicals are used to create a cell phone, flat-screen TV, tablet or computer, but it is a lot. Dr. Thomas Gassert, an occupational and environmental physician with the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Harvard University’s School of Public Health, says tens of thousands of chemicals are used in the electronics industry but only a fraction have been tested for toxicity.
This creates a problem for the workers who make electronic gadgets. If they get sick they have a hard time connecting their illnesses with their jobs because they often don’t know the names of the substances they work with.
The companies say masks, respirators and other equipment, automation and air circulation protect the workers. They say they inspect their factories in Asia to make sure safety rules are followed. The devices, however, are not made in a single place. Semiconductors — the essential components of phones and computers — are produced in special factories. Screens and cases are made elsewhere. The companies can’t inspect all these sites.
The demand for electronic products continues to grow; consumers trade up long before devices start to fail. Each upgraded device requires the use of chemicals — many new, almost none tested.
Most electronics today are made in Asia, where governments compete to offer the lowest minimum wage and taxes and the cheapest land — and, in many cases, the weakest labor laws and occupational health protections.
Sanjiv Pandita is executive director of the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that focuses on labor issues. The electronics industry is a big concern, Pandita said, because most workers are unsophisticated young women from rural areas.
“We don’t know people who are dying of cancers or where they are,” he said. “If you see a factory in Shenzhen [China], somebody gets sick, they’re sent back home to their hometown and we never bothered to put them in those statistics. The same thing is in Vietnam, the same thing is in Philippines. But that doesn’t mean the problem is not there; that means we’re sitting on a time bomb.”
Electronics boom in Vietnam
Vietnam is the newest destination for the electronics industry. Since 2009, Samsung has invested billions of dollars in plants that now account for almost 20 percent of Vietnam’s exports, pulling ahead of the textile and garment industries.
Samsung has two plants near Hanoi in the north, employing 80,000 people. In Ho Chi Minh City in the south, one plant is in operation and a second is under construction.
Samsung isn’t alone. Intel Corporation now produces 80 percent of its central processing units — or CPUs, the brains of a computer — in Vietnam. Foxconn has six plants that make computers, smart phones and components. Hundreds of smaller suppliers and sub-contractors have followed.
Vietnam has a youthful population with an enormous demand for new jobs. In 2014, 42 percent of Vietnamese were under the age of 25.
The Center for Development and Integration, a nonprofit based in Hanoi, is monitoring the electronics boom. Its managing director, Duong Viet Anh, worries that Vietnam lacks “the experience to control, to manage such kind of industry.” It arrived so quickly, she said, that the government didn’t have time to put worker health and safety protections in place.
A recent center study of three factories with about 200,000 workers, mainly women between the ages of 18 and 30, found that workers routinely put in 12-hour days and have no knowledge of the types of chemicals they use. Many suffer headaches and dizziness, and some have had reproductive problems, Duong said. A number of women quit their jobs after hearing of others who had miscarriages. It was the first study of its kind in Vietnam.
“The government thought that the workers work in a very clean room that is very safe,” Duong said. “But from our research we see that electronics is not safe.”
Samsung’s dominance in Korea
Korea is the home of Samsung Electronics, whose presence is felt everywhere. There are apartment blocks with the Samsung name. There are Samsung ships and military equipment. Samsung produces chemicals and sells insurance, securities and credit cards.
The company started in 1938 selling dried fish, vegetables and fruit. Within a few years it had moved into manufacturing flour mills and confectionary machines. It started making televisions in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became an international company and a leader in electronics production. Today, Samsung Electronics Korea has more than 90,000 employees and half a million worldwide.
One night in March, a memorial event was held outside Samsung’s 44-story headquarters in downtown Seoul. The aim was to remember a young woman, Hwang Yu-mi, who died eight years ago from acute myelocytic leukemia (AML).
People sat on thin cushions on the sidewalk, drinking hot tea to keep warm. There were testimonials from workers and their families, with a backdrop of poetry and music. Most startling were the photos of the mostly female workers who had died of leukemia and brain, breast and lung cancer. They were strikingly young: 21, 24, 28.
The memorial was organized by Hwang Sang-ki to honor his daughter, Yu-mi, and bring attention to illnesses among other electronics workers, most of whom had been employed by Samsung. When Yu-mi’s co-worker, Yi Sook-young, also died of AML, Hwang said, he thought there must be a connection.
“But I did not have any information about the factory, and all I knew at that time was they used some chemicals, and I heard that some chemicals can be hazardous,” he said.
Hwang had no idea how many workers were sick. He told his story to Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS), an umbrella group of nonprofits and volunteers. With the help of doctors and lawyers, SHARPS began collecting names of workers who had died and the causes of death. Its database includes more than 300 cases, most from Samsung.
Occupational health physician Dr. Kong Jeong-ok works for the Korean Institute of Labor Safety and Health and volunteers with SHARPS.
“Many people say, even the company sometimes … that this number  looks big, but it does not mean anything,” she said. “There’s no [statistical significance]. [To] myself, as a doctor, this is a really big alarm.”
The statistical significance to which Kong referred is a scientific evaluation of whether the number of sick electronics workers is large enough to suggest a connection between their illnesses and their jobs. Kong says the SHARPS list of 300 includes only those people who have heard about the group’s work and volunteer their stories. She believes many more sick people are not being counted.
SHARPS heard recently from parents who gave birth to children with physical or mental abnormalities, Kong said. Investigating those cases is next on the group’s list.
A study published in May by the online journal PLOS One found that women who work in the electronics industry in Korea have significantly higher risks of miscarriage and menstrual problems than a control group of Korean women the same age. Researchers from Hanyang University, Kyung Hee University and the nonprofit People’s Health Institute used data from Korea’s National Health Insurance claims between 2008 and 2012.
The researchers noted that not all women who miscarry or have menstrual problems would see a doctor. And “we could not identify particular workers who were potentially exposed to reproductive hazards or working in a specific position,” they wrote. Those factors suggest the risk “is likely to have been underestimated.
“Given that our data came from the three biggest companies in Korea, it is plausible to assume that workers in small-sized companies of Korea or working in developing countries are more exposed to such risk,” the scientists reported. Reproductive problems, the study pointed out, may foretell other health risks, such as cancer.
A public apology
After Yu-mi’s death, her father, Hwang Sang-ki, filed a claim with the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service. The agency said there was no evidence that Yu-mi’s leukemia was work related and rejected the claim. With the help of SHARPS, Hwang took the agency to court in 2011 and got a lucky break: An internal Samsung document was leaked to SHARPS administrator Lee Jong-ran.
“It showed a precise list of the toxic materials that were used in every process within the factory, not all the materials but the major ones, and they were really, really toxic,” Lee said.
The list included chemicals such as hydrogen chloride, ammonia, benzene, hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid and trichloroethylene.
SHARPS found an expert to look at the list and testify about the dangers of the chemicals. The court agreed to hear testimony from Samsung employees who worked in the same area as Yu-mi; after the workers told their stories, the court overturned the compensation service’s decision.
The three-judge panel said “the prolonged exposure to various toxic chemicals during [Yu-mi’s] work … gave rise to or at least accelerated the development of acute myeloid leukemia; thus, a proximate causal relationship … seems considerable.”
The compensation service appealed. Samsung got approval from the court to intervene in the appeal and hired several of the country’s top lawyers.
In May 2014, after years of ignoring the memorials and the demonstrations, Samsung’s vice-chairman, Kwon Oh-hyun, offered a public apology on national TV.
“We regret that a solution for this delicate matter has not been found in a timely manner, and we would like to use this opportunity to express our sincerest apology to the affected people,” he said. “We should have settled the issue earlier, and we feel deep regret that we failed to do so and express our sincerest apology.”
Samsung promised to stop intervening in court cases brought against the compensation service and to compensate sick workers and the families of those who died, including Yu-mi’s father, Hwang Sang-ki, and Han Hye-kyung, the young woman from Chuncheon who had a brain tumor removed.
Samsung officials declined to be interviewed for this article. Instead, a company spokesman, Park Ji-youn, recorded answers to a reporter’s questions.
Asked how Samsung protects workers from chemical hazards, Park said, “We closely regulate chemical exposure throughout the manufacturing process from storage to disposal. All Samsung employees receive information during mandated training about the chemicals that they handle including possible harm posed by those substances.”
Samsung refused to provide a copy of its hazardous-materials policy, saying in an email that its internal policies and practices could not be shared. It did not explain why details on its chemical safety training needed to be kept secret.
Asked why Samsung had compensated former employees, Park said, “It was the right thing to do. Not because we have legal or court-ordered mandates to do so or even any scientific evidence to link these illnesses to the workplace.”
In August 2014, the Seoul High Court rejected the compensation service’s appeal and ordered it to provide lost wages and funeral expenses to the families of the two former Samsung workers who died of leukemia.
Hwang Sang-ki believes the decision will change the way future compensation claims are handled.
“Because of this victory I think the more people can get some consciousness about the hazardous workplace problem,” he said. “And also, more workers can be protected in the future and the more victims can be compensated.”
Despite Samsung’s establishment of the financial aid fund last month, activists remain unsatisfied. The company rejected the idea of paying for a nonprofit foundation that would oversee the aid program and develop measures to prevent workplace disease. A non-binding mediation committee has asked the company to reconsider.
The chemical database
Ted Smith lives in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, where, beginning in the 1970s, electronics workers began complaining of illnesses they blamed on their jobs. Smith, a lawyer, founded the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in 1982. His work got laws passed, first in California and then nationally, to force electronics companies to reveal the names of some of the chemicals they use. Smith said the list of reportable chemicals is far from comprehensive and that chemicals used in small amounts are not reportable.
In the 1990s, the industry began moving to Asia and the coalition followed. It created a global network in 2002 that later became the International Campaign for Responsible Technology. It works to reduce industrial pollution and improve worker safety. Smith, the campaign coordinator, travels throughout Asia to train workers, union officials and doctors.
“We do a number of exercises where the workers get involved in mapping their own factories so that they can identify where the hazards are,” Smith said. “What we are trying to do through this training is to develop enough pressure from the workers themselves, as well as from other sources, to get the companies to make [chemical data] public.”
With the help of other researchers, Smith is building a database of chemicals believed to be used in the industry, and associated health effects.
“We have really had to do it from scratch,” he said. “It is a pretty robust list right now. It has over 1,100 chemicals on it and many of them have very well-defined scientific data behind them identifying them as carcinogens or reproductive toxins or neurotoxins.”
Once the list is finished, perhaps later this year, Smith hopes it will put pressure on companies like Samsung to disclose more of the chemicals they use. The next step would be to convince the companies to start replacing the most toxic ones.
“What the companies will oftentimes say is, ‘We will make changes as our customers demand it. We are customer-driven, customer-focused.’ So, one of the things we’ve tried to do is to organize some of that demand side,” Smith said. “If you can get hospitals, universities, to start demanding safer products, to say to the big brands, ‘We don’t want to buy your stuff until you meet certain minimums,’ that can create pressure on companies to start moving towards safer products and safer chemicals.”
Sandra Bartlett is a freelance writer and radio reporter in Toronto.
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