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09
July
2012
Interview

Interview with Dr Jeong-OK Kong: Samsung's cancer problem

Foxconn isn't the only electronics manufacturer with questionable working conditions. A cluster of cancer cases in Samsung's South Korean factories, as well as semi-conductor factories owned by Hynix and Amkor Technology, deserve attention as well.
Early this year Evertiq talked to Dr Jeong-ok, full time activist for the NGO Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health and a spokes person for SHARPS (Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry), an organization dedicated to making the Korean Government recognize cases of work-related of illness in semiconductor plants in Korea.

Dr Kong knows of 154 cases of cancer amongst young semi conductor workers, of which 137 reside in Samsung plants. The most recent victim was Yun Seul-ki, 32 years old, who died of aplastic anemia, a condition that she had struggled with since age 18.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation with Dr Kong. We have contacted Samsung for comment on the details of this interview but are yet to receive a reply.

How did you get involved in the movement and what do you do for the group?

KONG: The background of making SHARPS was that we got some information about leukemia victims from Samsung semiconductor plant and those victims were very young - in their twenties. They wanted to check whether their cancer was related to the working environment or not.

How many victims were there?

At the beginning there was only one victim but the family of the victim said that there were around six more leukemia [cases] in the same plant. So we demanded [of] the government a thorough investigation. That was the first demand [from] us.

Now we have collected information about around 150 diseases like leukemia or breast cancers or brain cancers and many rare diseases.

(Note: These numbers are based on information volunteered to SHARPS from various workers and victims themselves).

The father of one victim was a kind of trigger for the campaign. How did he recognize you were the group to contact?

Before he met one of us he had been trying to find anyone who could help him. His daughter, Yumi Hwang, got a leukemia diagnosis in 2005. One year later her co-worker, her partner in the same working station, got the same type of cancer and died. That was 2006.

So this man thought it was so weird because leukemia is really rare, but how can both of two workers in one working station get the same disease? So he wants to get some clear explanation.

He asked here and there and he got to know that there were leukemia cases at the same plant, people aged in their 20’s and 30’s.

He tried to contact many different organizations like media, political parties, many professionals, but no one answered. Finally he found that a local branch of KCTU, that is the trade union office. A labor attorney in that local office, she listened to him. She asked two other activists in two other human right groups and they decided to organize more people because it was really hard to explain. So they organized a meeting.

So this how you found out about the case, they talked to you?

Yes, actually they asked me through my organization. My organization (Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health) decided to send me to that meeting. That was 2008 maybe September or October.

What was the reaction from Samsung when you came forward with evidence that people were getting sick. What did they say?

At first they just kept silent and actually the reason Mr Hwang thought he needed support from outside of the plant was he couldn’t get any explanation from the company. According to him, Samsung kept denying the presence of other leukemia victims.

For example, he explained that if he found the name of leukemia patients then the company said OK that is the only one. And if he could find two more and ask the company, then the company says OK those three are the entire [amount of cases].

So Mr Hwang said he couldn’t trust the company any more and actually the government’s response in public was actually only two years ago.

What did they say in public?

Two years ago another worker died from leukemia at the age of 22. That news was released through the Internet so the company said they felt very sorry about the death but that there was no scientific evidence of work relatedness of her cancer but the company would try to protect the workers more perfectly.

Still I can remember the date she died on March 31. The company invited press media around, hundreds of press media, to their plant at Giheung on April 15 2010. So we could read the article about the company’s response.

Did they do anything in your opinion to investigate the issue or address the issue of sickness from workers?

They already knew about some sickness of their employees but actually we cannot trust the company and those kinds of investigations [are] the role of government. So we demanded (that) the government must investigate Samsung, but also those investigations must cover all the semiconductor industry. That was our demand.

(Note: Dr Kong says Samsung hired Environ International corp. to consult occupational health and safety in its semiconductor plants.)

And what’s been the response from the government?

They did some investigation and they founded in 2008 the occupational health research institute. So the institute did an epidemiological study on blood cancers in the semi-conductor industry. They released a press release about the research on December 28, 2008.

According to their press release they found that the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was very high especially in the female workers in the semiconductor industry. Relatively higher than the general population - around more than 2 times. For female workers in fabrication plants, the risk of that disease was 5.19 higher than the general population.As for leukemia they found that 1.4 times higher risk in female workers. But the leukemia was, they couldn’t find some statistical significance in the leukemia.

(Note: Dr Kong criticised the study: “In general, ‘statistical significance’ cannot be achieved in a rare disease without large population and long study period. Each of the incidence of those rare diseases in both semiconductor workers and general population is very small, so that the difference between two groups can not reach the big number enough to say ‘they are different’. That’s the basic limitation of use of ‘statistical significance’ in rare disease”. )

( Media Not Available ) © SHARPS

But they did find a risk in lymphoma?

Yes, so it was very meaningful research. So at that time our issue was focused on leukemia because of those young workers who got leukemia at the same time at the plants. They applied to the National workers compensation.

So this investigation was actually to decide whether to compensate these workers or not- You can see that even though they found that lymphoma had a significant increasing they said they couldn’t say clearly about the risk of leukemia.

(Note: Following the study, the government released a press release stating there was no significant connection between working conditions and leukemia).

But you are saying that they did find a relationship? It was 1.4 times higher?

Right and that is the explanation of the institute actually, but they did write that in their press release. I was there at their press conference, so I asked them. And they said that this finding is also very important and also the lack of statistical significance could be based on the limitation of research design itself. They said that but they didn’t write that. It’s a kind of tricky attitude of the government.

Do you think that was intentional by the government?

Although I don’t want to think like that, actually I cannot but think about some possibility of some pressure from Samsung or some industry. The foreigners cannot understand how much Samsung has a power within the whole country of Korea. So Korean people say, this is not the Republic of Korea but the Republic of Samsung or empire of Samsung.

Has there been any other cases of workers getting sick in the last year or two?

Yes I can say that we have found more victims for the last two years after the death of a young worker. Her name is Jiyeon Park. Her death on March 31, 2010 was a kind of big trigger for many different aspects. The first was actually that Samsung itself began to respond after her death and second we got much more phone call or email from the victims or their families. So now we have around 150 cases, but you know this is only the information based on the victims themselves, voluntary information.

How old are these people?

Very young. Most of them got cancer diagnosis in their 20’s or 30’s. The oldest victims were two male workers and they were born in 1960's, and they got the cancer in their 40s. One got leukemia and the other got brain cancer. So one died and one is still alive.

Now when you say victims, are these people who died, or some have died and some have cancer?

Of the 154, at least 61 have died. And you know some of those, information is not enough, some of them didn’t want to say everything to us. So we can say that at least 61 already died. And the number of death can be more than we know.

You say some don’t want to come forward, why is that?

Although I can’t say all the reasons, according to themselves they were afraid of being treated badly from the company because, for example, many female workers in Samsung semiconductor, they got married with the male workers within the same plant.

The husband or the wife of the victim, they still work there. Especially the male victims. The semi conductor job is the only knowledge and skill of them for many male workers, so many of them work in the same industry, for example for some subcontractor of Samsung. Even they stop working within Samsung. So they didn’t wanttheir names disclosed.

Has Samsung offered compensation?

The compensation from the company can be divided into several categories.For the employee who are sick, as I heard, they have own private insurance from their employees. Some victims said they got some money from the insurance. But that is only a part so we don’t know if insurance can cover all the cases or not.

The second type of compensation is from the coworkers. So some of our victims remember they got money from the company, but actually that money was a kind of fund raised among the workers to help each other.

The third is very weird to understand. One victim family he said that when he lost his wife he was very angry about the company’s attitude so he said he would bring the dead body of his wife in front of the plant. But he didn’t do it, he just said it with anger. And then the company brought a credit card for him. So he said he actually paid the cost for the funeral with that card from the company.

In general I think the compensation from the company used to be very arbitrary depending on the power or attitude of the victim themselves.

So there is no official position from Samsung on how they compensate the sick?

They said they have some support system. But as we know even though they supported part of the cost of treatment that it didn’t work for the cancer. Because all the workers have some. If you are the worker in Samsung and you have got cancer it takes more then several months to get treatment – the company comes to you and says they need more workforce and there is a limitation for the sick leave, so they demand to quit the job. So once the worker quit the company used to ignore.

I actually wanted to add one thing. Last year in August, Samsung announced that they would support some retired worker who got cancer after retirement. So they announced their supportive system.

(Note: Samsung’s announced on August 30 this year company would pay back the substantial treatment cost up to 100 million won for workers who got cancer after retirement. Dr Kong says this compensation is avaliable only if all the four conditions are fulfilled; (1)the cancer must be diagnosed within 3 years after retirement, (2)the worker must have worked at Samsung semiconductor factory for at least one year, (3)the worker must have gotten ‘special health monitoring’ during his/her work, which means the work must have been noticed to the government as hazardous, (4)the cancer must be one of 14 types which the company defines.)

The most important thing is that SHARPS doesn’t demand compensation from the company. We don't want this kind of compensation because here we have a national workers compensation so actually our demand on the compensation is toward the government and not the company.

Samsung is a really big company and they can afford to cover the victims’ cost, but for example, Hynix is only one tenth of Samsungs size. And there is hundreds of small and medium sized company’s in the semiconductor electronics industries so if we say that’s ok on the compensation from the company then we can’t exclude all the other victims from the other smaller company’s. So the victims themselves, they don’t want to get money from the company. They just want to get some apology from the company and some money from government.

You know there has been a lot of interest from the media in Foxconn . Why do you think people are interested in that, but this story there has not been that much coverage that I have seen. Why do you think that is?

At first we can find the reason inside of us. I think SHARPS, we don’t work much in English. So actually it’s a very little small network we must deal with many different problems against the government and against the company and we must support many victims. So we couldn’t do a kind the thing to raise awareness in foreign countries. So hat can be a factor.

The second factor I think is a kind of power of media. I mean here in Korea now days many media can deal with this issue. I don’t know why but, frankly speaking, I know some big TV program they tried to make a big investigation but they gave up later. And they apologized to me because they couldn’t show their program because some managerial ordered not to show the program about Samsung. I don’t have any evidence, but the second factor can be the power of Samsung.

One case known publicly is MBC in Daejeon city in 2010. A program named ‘Sisa plus’ could not be broadcasted due to the managerial order not to do it. MBC said ‘the contents can be unfair, and can make MBC dangerous because Samsung may raise a lawsuit.
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