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NGOs demand Samsung protect employees from toxic chemicals

Chemical Watch 07 December 2016 | Tammy Lovell

Call for electronics giant to compensate ill factory workers

A network of NGOs is calling on Samsung to protect its employees from toxic chemicals and compensate those who contracted diseases, while working in its factories. 

The International POPs Elimination Network (Ipen) has issued an open declaration, with 63 signatories calling on the electronics giant to "immediately institute measures to protect worker rights and health at facilities worldwide”.

It has announced its support for the South Korean advocacy group, Supporters of Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS), which has been staging a sit-in protest outside the Samsung D'light exhibition space in south Seoul, since October 2015.

SHARPS says that 224 employees developed diseases, including leukemia, brain tumors and multiple sclerosis, while working in Samsung's factories in South Korea. The group says 76 employees have died since 2007.

Ipen said it upholds SHARPS' call for Samsung to make a full apology and “transparently and sufficiently” compensate former employees who have contracted diseases and their families. 

In the open declaration, Ipen writes: "We are deeply saddened to learn of the many people, most of whom are young women, who are suffering and dying from cancers and other diseases associated with exposures to toxic chemicals."

It adds that although Samsung "can never reverse the suffering perpetrated upon the workers and their families", it "can and must prevent further harm to workers and institute a system that remedies the harm done to former workers and protects current and future workers".

It calls for the company to:

  • provide a safe working environment;
  • ensure workers’ right to know about chemicals and associated health hazards;
  • substitute safe substances and materials;
  • provide occupational health and safety training;
  • provide proper protective gear and ventilation; and
  • institute regular independent health assessments and medical care for workers.    

A Samsung spokesperson said the company has been "faithfully committed to working with the affected families to determine how to best help".

They added: "In fact, although there has been no scientifically proven correlation between the workplace environment and employee illness, Samsung Electronics is providing support because it is the right thing to do - not because it received a legal or court-ordered mandate to do so."

An independent, third-party mediation committee was formed in December 2014 to oversee open dialogue between Samsung and its former employees.

In response to the mediation committee's proposal, the company has created a fund of KRW 100bn (€800,000) to provide financial support to "eligible employees and onsite contractors" who worked in the semiconductor and liquid-crystal display (LCD) manufacturing facilities and were diagnosed with one of 11 diseases. The fund will also be used for research into promoting health and safety at Samsung's semiconductor facilities.

The spokesperson said that, as of November 2016, more than 160 people had applied and 120 people had received financial support through the programme as well as "a heartfelt message of sympathy" from Samsung's CEO.

In a statement on its website, the company denies claims that it used the justification of trade secrets to intentionally avoid disclosing use of toxic chemicals.

It says that suppliers are required to do this, even if they are deemed a trade secret. It also says that it conducts tests on materials received from suppliers for traces of toxic chemicals.

An independent ombudsman committee was established in June this year to assess workplace safety within Samsung’s semiconductor facilities in South Korea.

The company says it will "faithfully implement any proposed improvements" from the ombudsman.