Anahi Malig, Volunteer, International Labor Rights Forum
Yu-mi Hwangs entered the labor force at age 19 in one of Samsung's semi-conductor factories. In 2007, at the age of 23, she died of acute leukemia, after having worked for four years as a “clean room” line operator in the company's Giheung plant. Samsung – Korea's largest family-controlled conglomerate and the world's largest technology company – rejected the possibility of a link between Yu-mi Hwang's death and her working conditions. This, however, is just one in a series of deaths which have raised concern about carcinogenic exposure in Samsung's Giheung and On-Yang plants. In the last 7 years, 26 cases of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma have been reported, of which 10 have been fatal.
A study initiated by the Korean Ministry of Labor, in conjunction with the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA), in order to evaluate the risk of Lymphohematopoietic cancer for workers at six companies that produce semiconductors. Although exposure to cancer-causing chemicals was not proven, and the overall cancer rate was not shown to be higher than that of the general population, the study “did find, however, that incidences of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among the companies’ women workers— including at Samsung— were 2.67 times that of the general population. For women assembly operators, the rate of lymphoma was an astonishing five times higher”.
The higher incidence of lymphoma and leukemia cases in females, as opposed to males, seems to attest to the fact that traditional gender roles play an important factor in the recruitment practices of these companies. As the Ms article points out, at Samsung “men tend to work as engineers and managers while women generally work as line operators -where they are prone to higher chemical exposure.”
The former Samsung clean room workers and their families have recently filed a lawsuit against Korea Worker's Compensation and Welfare Service who refused to pay compensation after conducting an investigation which failed to find sufficient evidence that the cancers were work-related.
In addition, they have helped to launch, along with several independent labor unions and human rights groups, a global campaign which aims to “reveal the truth about the health and workers’ rights conditions in the electronics industry and in Samsung” and“achieve proper compensation for worker victims”.
Following the highly publicized lawsuit and campaign, Samsung has commissioned an independently run health and safety review of its semiconductor factories. The company stated in April that this investigation will be carried out by a team of independent experts who will be given complete access to its facilities.
The issue of work-related cancer at Samsung, as it seems to have disproportionately affected women line operators, raises the larger question of gender discrimination in Korea. As the Ms. article mentions, women workers at Samsung receive lower wages and are made to work longer hours than their male counterparts. This, however, is not unique to Samsung; according to the 2010 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, Korea ranks 111th in employment equality. The report states that Korean women earn on average only half that of their male counterparts.
Of course, gender discrimination is a very large issue, which is why the ILRF is committed to opposing discriminatory practices against working women wherever they take place. Check out ILRF’s Rights for Working Women Campaign for more information on how the ILRF promotes women's rights in the workplace.