Samsung to Respond to Allegations of Lethal Chemical Exposure of Its Workers

Hwang Sang-ki, with his daughter Yu-mi, before her death in 2007 from leukemia. Image via Electronics Take Back Coalition

The increasing profile and growing public outrage over allegations of lethal chemical exposure of workers at Samsung Electronics Co. has prompted the company to say that it will be releasing its official response to the issue soon.

It will be Samsung’s first public statement on the deaths of dozens of its workers from leukemia and other rare cancers, which family members and activists claim was a direct result of lethal chemical exposure at its chip-making plants. Samsung’s breaking of its silence, seven years after the allegations first arose, follows a recent storm of attention in the media. An extensive report from Bloomberg Businessweek released on April 10—the same day Samsung released its flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone—told the story of Hwang Yu-mi, a woman who at age 18 went to work at a Samsung semiconductor plant in 2003 and was dead from leukemia by age 22. The article also detailed her father’s ongoing struggle to expose the truth about what happened to her and the larger movement he launched to call attention to the dangerous use of carcinogens at electronics factories.

A movie based on her story, titled Another Promise, was released in February this year, and Empire of Shame, a documentary detailing a further 57 cases of leukemia and other blood-related cancers across several Samsung plants—including that of Yu-mi’s coworker—premiered in early March. Samsung declined to discuss specific cases for the Bloomberg article, saying in a statement that it spent about $88 million in 2011 on the maintenance and improvement of its safety infrastructure.

Meanwhile, a South Korean lawmaker last week called for Samsung to apologize and compensate the families of the victims. Kim Jun-shik, an executive vice president at Samsung, said the company was “reviewing the proposals in a sincere manner” and that it would issue an official statement soon.

According to the Bloomberg story, when Yu-mi’s father, Hwang Sang-ki, tried to file for worker’s compensation during her treatment, Samsung intervened and challenged the family’s right to file, according to the report. Hwang’s application with the Korean Workers Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) was denied in 2009. When the 58-year-old tax driver appealed to a South Korean court in 2011, the court ruled in favor of him and ordered KCOMWEL to pay him, only to have KCOMWEL file an appeal in return.

Hwang Sang-ki at a memorial service for his late daughter and others

who died of occupational deaths in March 2012.

The article noted that if Hwang’s application for worker’s compensation had gone through, Samsung would not have paid a penny or even been charged with employer negligence. However, the company went through great lengths to pay Hwang and families of other workers who had died in order to get them to withdraw their claims and stop talking about the issue publicly, the article said.

There are more than 40 cases pending either before KCOMWEL or in court today. While Hwang is one of those still awaiting a decision, KCOMWEL and the South Korean courts have started easing their resistance, awarding benefits in a few high-profile cases.