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Samsung Worker May Have Contracted Cancer at Workplace, Court Finds

by Richard Smallteacher
October 28th, 2013

Kim Kyun-Mi. Photo: SHARPS. Used under Creative Commons license.

A South Korean court has found "considerable causal relationship" between leukemia that killed a Samsung worker and her job dipping wafers in chemicals at a memory chip factory in Gi-heung, South Korea. This is the third time courts have supported alleged victims of workplace hazards in Samsung facilities.

Kim Kyung-mi was hired by Samsung in 1999 at age 19, after completing high school, and worked on one of Samsung’s oldest chip assembly lines at the Gi-heung factory until 2004.  In 2008, Kim was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and was treated with marrow transplants but died the following year.

Until her death, Kim fought a battle for compensation for her injuries that she believed were linked to her job. After her death, Kim’s family continued the battle.

Samsung denied that Kim had contracted cancer at the company factory, citing studies that concluded there were no dangerous levels of benzene, formaldehyde or other carcinogens at their work sites. As a result, the Korean Worker's Compensation & Welfare Service (KCOMWEL), a quasi-government agency that is mandated to provide social security and labor welfare services, rejected requests for compensation from Kim’s family.

In a ruling handed down in October, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled that it could not determine the exact cause of Kim’s death because Samsung “did not preserve information of chemical materials used during Kim's work and did not disclose some data citing trade secrets.”

However the court noted that the factory studies had failed to “evaluate exposure to chemicals during maintenance work, blackouts, gas leaks or other incidents when the level of toxic gas goes up sharply,” according to an Associated Press summary.

The court also found that there was "high probability" that Kim had been exposed to these chemicals and ordered KCOMWEL to pay compensation to Kim’s family.

Samsung has refused to comment on the matter, noting that “the court's decision appears to have been based on probability,” according to a press statement. "Regardless, Samsung's top priority has always been ensuring the health and safety of every person we employ," the company added.

The decision is a victory for Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry (SHARPs) – a South Korean activist group made up of independent labor unions, human right groups, occupational safety and health (OSH) groups, progressive political parties, and workers’ organizations – who have been campaigning against Samsung after they chronicled the deaths of 10 workers from leukemia and lymphoma beginning in 2005 after working at the company’s factories in Gi-heung and On-Yang, South Korea.

Samsung also faces allegations of poor working conditions abroad. For example:

•    In August 2013, Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, was fined 250 million real ($109) million fine for working condition violations at a plant in the Zona Franca (free trade zone) of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil, that were discovered during two inspections in May 2011 and May 2013.

•    In August 2012, China Labor Watch, a U.S. based group issued a report alleging that a Samsung sub-contractor - HEG Electronics, in Huizhou, China – was using child labor, based on three investigations conducted between the months of June and July 2012. The researchers claimed that the under age workers were forced to work 11 hours per day, six days a week for 70 percent of the regular pay.

•    In September 2011, Samsung was fined 500,000 real ($214,000) for poor working conditions at a factory in Campinas, São Paulo state, Brazil, where supervisors were accused of harassing employees.