Globally speaking, the electronics we enjoy in the west seem to have a severe and sometimes fatal impact on humans in other countries.
The suicide epidemic at China’s Foxconn, then Apple’s Taiwanese partner’s recent trouble for involuntary, illegal overtime, and now, in the most recent example, the actual death of over 70 employees at one of Samsung’s plants in South Korea. The impetus to protect intellectual property apparently drove the electronics giant to keep harmful chemicals secret from employees. Their fear was that by divulging such basic workplace safety information, “[their] competitiveness would be lowered.” This is the reason the company gave to the government, which went on to assist them in keeping the cancer-causing chemicals a secret from employees and the public.
Among the diseases contracted, as documented by a worker-safety group called Banolim, are leukemia, lupus, lymphoma and multiple sclerosis. The group has so far uncovered over 200 such cases, including the 76 who have died. The hazard has been ongoing for years, and in at least six documented cases where an employee had died, the company was not required by the government to inform the bereaved family what chemicals the employee had been exposed to.
The South Korean government is much different from United States governments in terms of worker’s compensation for workplace injuries, and without this information, the process was made much harder. Although it is illegal for the government to assent to the withholding of this information, there is actually no penalty for so doing.
In terms of progress, Samsung has been here and there. While they have settled with around 100 families, covering all medical expenses and some income loss, they have also withheld information about exposure levels of the chemicals that cause these diseases. Being South Korea’s largest company by far, the company has an incredible amount of influence, and the outcome of any lawsuits by the remaining families might be less than satisfying to them, supposing they won at all.
The International Labor Organization, of which South Korea’s government is a member, prohibits the use of carcinogenic chemicals in most cases, as per the 1974 Occupational Cancer Convention. Article 5 of that convention’s output states that, “Each Member which ratifies this Convention shall take measures to ensure that workers are provided with such medical examinations or biological or other tests or investigations during the period of employment and thereafter as are necessary to evaluate their exposure and supervise their state of health in relation to the occupational hazards.”
However, if the existence of carcinogenic chemicals in the workplace is kept secret from the beginning, there can be no process to establish whether it is making workers sick or not. Ultimately it may have to be international organizations which step in and regulate the factories of Samsung, which is so embedded in the government that they have been given free reign so far.
Activist group SumOfUs is currently attempting to garner 150,000 signatures from people worldwide in order to pressure Samsung to behave in a way that is friendlier to the health of its employees. A global boycott could certainly have a much greater impact on Samsung’s competitiveness than could the divulging of dangerous chemicals, after all.
Images from Shutterstock and Wikimedia.