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Samsung Responds to the Worker Leukemia Cluster: Why the Samsung Tragedies Matter

We are now at an important crossroad in the long term struggle for sustainable electronics. It is clear that Apple and Samsung are the global kingpins and both have been severely challenged by mismanagement and human tragedy in their manufacturing supply chains. The future of technology development hangs in the balance.

A memorial event for former Samsung workers who died of cancer was held outside the company's Seoul headquarters in March. ,Sandra Bartlett for the Center for Public Integrity

When Hwang Yumi got her first job working at Samsung semiconductor at age 18 in 2003,, she and her family were happy that she was on her way toward economic independence as part of the booming technology revolution in South Korea. But her high hopes came crashing down when she learned that she had developed leukemia from her toxic exposures on the job, and her family was devastated when she died at age 22 in 2007. While trying to cope with his grief, her father - Hwang Sang-ki — was prompted to action, knowing that a co-worker of Yumi’s had also recently died from leukemia. He made a commitment that he was going to find out why this had happened and to make sure that it never happened to anyone else’s children.

This set of circumstances prompted Mr. Hwang - a taxi driver from Sokcho - to start his own investigation which resulted in his collaboration with occupational health and safety professionals based in Seoul to get to the bottom of this tragedy. Through their efforts, they discovered that over 285 other Samsung employees had developed leukemia and other rare and terrible cancers and chronic diseases, and that more than 100 had died during the past few years.

(Data compiled by Dr. Jeong-ok Kong for a presentation at the ANROEV Meeting in Hanoi, September 2015)

He teamed up with a young attorney - Jong Ran Lee and a young occupational health physician - Dr. Jeong-ok Kong and formed Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor (SHARPS) and started an advocacy campaign to get Samsung to acknowledge their responsibility. They started pressing Samsung to take action to compensate those who had suffered and to take steps to remedy the health and safety conditions in their factories. They set in motion a chain of events that continues to unfold.

They were shocked and appalled by Samsung’s response - they not only refused to acknowledge any responsibility, they actively fought back, denigrating the efforts of SHARPS and then hiring a notorious U.S. consulting firm - ENVIRON - to produce a slick report that claimed to exonerate Samsung.

In the meantime, SHARPS helped the victims’s families to file workers’ compensation law suits, which were resisted by Samsung and the South Korean government. Eventually South Korean courts began to rule in favor of some of the victims, creating a wave of revelation to many in South Korea that there was truth to the allegations of Samsung’s culpability. But the government and Samsung appealed the decisions, and the court battles are ongoing.

Because of their expert documentation and dogged determination — which included multiple protest demonstrations at Samsung headquarters — SHARPS was able to generate local press attention to the plight of the Samsung victims (no small feat in a media climate where “the Republic of Samsung” bears inordinate clout). Other sectors of civil society began to mobilize, and 2 films were produced that prompted a spike in public awareness and concern.

As local and international pressures began to build, Samsung started to change tactics, and moved from complete denial to explore a resolution that could put this all behind them. In May, 2014, Kwon Oh-hyun, one of the three chief executive officers of Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., shocked the world by making an apology at a press conference and announced that Samsung would compensate the victims and stop appealing the court cases.

Samsung next decided to support a mediation effort in an attempt to resolve all outstanding issues. A Mediation Committee was established, which included well respected leaders in law and academia and chaired by Kim Ji-hyung, a retired Judge.

After months of research, engagement and deliberation, the Committee issued its recommendations on July 23, 2015. Their findings largely supported the claims of the victims and included the following 4 bold provisions:

  • Samsung should contribute 100 billion won ($85.8 million) to fund an independent public interest organization to objectively carry out the recommendations of the mediation committee:
  • The independent fund will provide compensation to victims who developed a wide range of illnesses while working at Samsung
  • The fund will also support specific measures to prevent diseases in the future and a pledge to maintain a healthy workplace
  • An apology from Samsung as a joint declaration to address human rights and health issues.

While SHARPS responded with cautious support (while maintaining that it didn’t go far enough), Samsung only agreed to the recommendation that it contribute funding, but rejected the key provisions that were designed to address the long term solutions of preventing future diseases.

Consequently, ICRT decided to mobilize global civil society to support SHARPS and the recommendations of the Mediation Committee through the distribution of an Open Letter to Samsung to Accept the Recommendations of the Mediation Committee. Since then, many prominent leaders from a wide range of global civil society—including 1000’s of organizations and individuals from more than 40 countries — have endorsed the Open Letter.

Sensing their vulnerability, Samsung decided to strike back at ICRT, claiming that “We would like to clarify and provide corrections to certain inaccuracies and misrepresentations contained in the open letter posted on your website” and asserted that the establishment of the independent process “would be an inefficient method to solve this issue and not in the best interest of the families involved.”

ICRT issued a pointed reply to Samsung on September 17 supporting SHARPS and pointing out the fallacies in their position:

“We share the belief with SHARPS and a large number of civil society groups
from around the world that the best path forward is for Samsung to accept the
recommendations of the Mediation Committee to establish an independent
foundation to resolve all outstanding issues, especially the forward looking
proposals to address prevention, research and other public interest efforts. This
would assure a fair, just, credible and effective solution to the many issues that
face Samsung. It would also lead to more effective safer chemicals policy and
pollution prevention solutions which would better protect people and save
Samsung money in the long run. The Mediation Committee process has been
the one effort that has succeeded in bringing all of the parties together, and
continues to be the best opportunity to resolve all outstanding issues. It was for
these reasons that we wrote the Open Letter; we continue to urge Samsung to
adopt this path.”

The ICRT reply then focused on the key issues:

“By insisting that it control all of the key decisions moving forward - rather than
working collaboratively with the proposed independent non-profit foundation that
would include a multi-stakeholder process - Samsung has retreated into a bunker
mentality and has rejected a key opportunity to demonstrate that it is serious
about becoming a more sustainable company ready to take its place among the
emerging leaders in the industry. With Samsung’s credibility on the line, the
company has chosen to reject the objectivity and respect that could be gained
embracing the Mediation Committee recommendations. A new willingness to
open up the decision making process is particularly important for a company
such as Samsung that has been so secretive and closed to the outside world.

In your recent correspondence, you state that the incorporation of the
independent foundation would be too costly, and take too much time to
implement. If these are really your main concerns (rather than an excuse to
maintain control of all key decisions), they are easily addressed through
additional negotiations (through the Mediation Committee).

According to a recent report from Forbes, Samsung Electronics is the 7th
most valuable brand in the world with a market cap of almost $200 billion.
Compared to that, the $85 million compensation proposal is tiny. In fact, the total
amount recommended by the Mediation Committee is less than 3.6% of
Samsung’s annual advertising budget, so we don’t believe that the overall cost to
Samsung is the real issue here.

In your letter, you state:

‘The recommendation of the Mediation Committee suggests the incorporation of
an association that would consume up to 30% of the fund, a sum of KRW 30
billion ($ 25.2million), in order to cover operational costs and other expenses.
Samsung Electronics believes the greatest percentage of the fund possible
should be directed toward providing financial aid.’

You seem to fundamentally miss the key point here - the recommendation of the
Mediation Committee is to use 30% of the funds for prevention research to
avoid future health problems and to fund efforts to develop safer chemical
processes. This is one of the most important aspects of the recommendation -
and one that requires the development of an independent, credible body to
implement. We strongly urge Samsung to reconsider its dismissal of this
proposal by characterizing it as “operational costs and other expenses” and
acknowledge that this is in fact the key to the sustainability pathway that we all

As for the timing, there is no reason not to move forward with an expedited
process to determine compensation for the victims. There are ample precedents
for how to do this, and if Samsung is in fact motivated to do so, this should not be
an impediment. We agree that the victims should be compensated as soon as
possible - they have waited far too long already. But there is no reason that this
should stand in the way of resolving the longer term prevention issues which
require the critical involvement of independent, objective outside experts.
Perhaps a “dual track” could help to resolve the impasse - an expedited
compensation track and a longer term “prevention track” with robust and sincere
participation of outside experts to develop solutions.

We believe that the fact that 55 of the victims supported SHARPS in its statement
of September 7 shows overwhelming support for its position to support the
Mediation Committee proposals.

These longer term issues of how to prevent future illnesses, how to develop safer
chemicals and processes, how to implement thorough and effective workplace
monitoring, and all of the other issues that are addressed in the “Challenge to the
electronics industry” which has been sent to Samsung - are all issues that would
benefit from the formation of the independent foundation. In fact, if Samsung is
sincere in its interest in addressing and resolving these critical issues, it must
realize that the best way to succeed is to work within an independent framework
that includes a diversity of views that will develop effective and credible
solutions. We urge you to support this direction.

For all of these reasons, we reiterate our proposal to Samsung to adopt the
recommendation of the Mediation Committee and to move forward in
collaboration as quickly as possible. We would offer our support if you choose to
adopt this path, as would the many civil society organizations from around the
world that have endorsed the Open Letter. If, however, you continue to dig in
your heels and resist the independent path, these concerns will continue to
fester and grow, which will no doubt hinder effective and credible long term

We are now at an important crossroad in the long term struggle for sustainable electronics. It is clear that Apple and Samsung are the global kingpins and both have been severely challenged by mismanagement and human tragedy in their manufacturing supply chains. Apple was rocked by the rash of Foxconn suicides and the revelation of the use of benzene and leukemia clusters at their sub-contractor factories. They responded by hiring new staff - including Lisa Jackson (former Director of U.S. EPA) as Vice President, and agreed to ban benzene at least in their first tier suppliers.

Now the focus has shifted to Samsung, and we will see what they are made of - will they continue to be a technology leader but a sustainability laggard? Will they continue to travel the “low road” or will they decide to climb up to the “high road”? The future of technology development hangs in the balance. Civil society global leaders are watching intently to see which path Samsung choses.

Ted Smith is founder and former Executive Director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a grass roots environmental coalition formed in 1982 in response to environmental pollution caused by electronics manufacturing in Silicon Valley, California. Ted is also co-founder and Chair of the steering committee of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which is working to promote life-cycle producer responsibility within the hightech electronics industry. In addition, Ted is co-founder and Coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT), an international network committed to working for the development of sustainable, non-polluting technologies. Ted was recognized by the Dalai Lama for his environmental leadership. He is a widely published author and is co-editor of “Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry” published by Temple University Press, 2006 He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Stanford Law School and was a VISTA Volunteer in Washington, DC from 1967 - 1969.

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