Technology – Danwatch undersøgende journalistik Mon, 22 Oct 2018 14:44:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Technology – Danwatch 32 32 Servants of Servers Mon, 05 Oct 2015 13:53:39 +0000 Few Rights for Workers in the IT industry Mon, 29 Dec 2014 13:12:16 +0000 SEOUL. Outcries from more than 700 hundred workers and unionists clashed against the steel walls of the Samsung Electronics Headquarter building. Teargas was sprinkling like rain from the sky, as just as many police officers were trying to keep control of the angry crowd. Their demands were clear. They wanted Samsung Electronics to stop harassing workers, who try to unionise. The workers wanted rights.

The demonstration took place in May 2014 and a few days earlier, 16th of May, the 34- year old, Yeom HoSeok, lit fire to a small pile of charcoal at the bottom of his car and awaited the toxic fumes to take him away from his life. In a farewell letter to his parents, he wrote: “I can no longer sit by as more sacrifices and more pain are wrought upon our unionists”.

Suicide in the electronics industry is not a new phenomenon. In 2008, a 26-year old female engineer from a Nokia factory in India hung herself because of harassment from her managers. In 2010, fourteen workers at Apple’s factories took their own life, and at Samsung Electronics, Yeom HoSeok is the latest in a line of workers, who are willing to dedicate their death to the struggle for labour rights.

When workers die for rights

Following Apple, Samsung is the second biggest brand in tablet and mobile phone manufacturing according to business magazine Forbes with a 22,5% market share of global tablet production in 2014. In addition to this, Samsung Electronics is the second biggest supplier of microchips used in tablets and mobile phones according to an IHS ranking in 2013. This means, if you have an Ipad or an Iphone, it is likely to hold a chip from Samsung.

More than 90.000 South Koreans are employed by Samsung in South Korea alone, and according to Samsung Electronics, ‘the company takes great care to provide a workplace environment with the highest industry standards of health, safety and welfare’.

“We remain steadfastly committed to all labour and human rights laws of the countries in which we operate”, the company writes in an email to DanWatch.
Still, allegations from current and previous workers, NGOs and lawyers tell another story of harassment for attempts of unionizing, so called union busting.

No need to unionise

Samsung Electronics has a long tradition for preventing unions. Since the foundation of the company in 1938 by Lee Byung-chul there has been a strict no-union-policy.
In 1977, when female workers at a plant in Gimpo tried to form a union, Lee Byung-chul was famous for saying: “I will never permit a union! Over my dead body!”
Instead, he told the company to create good working conditions so that workers would never feel the necessity to organise themselves.

A strategy Samsung Electronics has maintained until today. In the 2013 Samsung Sustainability Report it says, that the company ‘strives to provide superior working conditions (…) so that employees do not feel the need for a labour union’.
Recently, an alleged internal Samsung document,‘S group worker management Manual’, which describes policy and practises involved in Samsungs ‘no-union-policy’ was leaked.
In terms like ‘the dissolution of unionization movement’ by employment of ‘the union-response strategy and tactics’, it is explained, how Samsung management respond to laborers efforts to form unions.

The company is listening

Some workers who have tried to unionise talk about multiple meetings with their management that usually results in promotions or threats of degradation. Or the risk of losing their job. Should the workers not seize their unionization efforts, the HR department in Samsung sets in. Wiretapping and shadowing of workers in and outside working hours in order to prevent them from forming a union is not uncommon, says a former high ranking employee in a Samsung Electronics HR Department, who in detail – anonymously – describes his participation in several attempts of union busting.

“The workers were watched for 24 hours. An observing vehicle was assigned on them, and we were also watching from higher plane using telescope. At dawn, five vehicles were awaiting order in a specific area. Starting from the workers’ front door to the expressway, vehicle observing points were assigned, so we could monitor the workers every movement. This was common practise, it would drive them insane”

This was in 2007, but the procedure of surveillance and wiretapping is confirmed by a current employee, Mr Sang su-Kim, who has been trying to form a union in Samsung from 20011-2013.Mr Sang su-Kim is not his real name, and he is clearly afraid of the consequences of talking to journalists. The 54-year old engineer has been working for Samsung since 1987 and through this period seen the failure of several attempts by workers to unionise.

“I have been followed by someone assigned by the company to watch me. Every time we try to meet, management staff will be waiting outside my house to try and prevent me from going by either delaying or physically blocking me”, he says quietly.
“My phone has been tapped, which I am sure it still is”.

The allegations about wiretapping and shadowing are ‘not true’, according to Samsung Electronics.
“We respect union activities under the laws and regulations of the Republic of Korea, and we are committed to complying with the laws and regulations in countries, where we operate”, Samsung Electronics states in an email to DanWatch.

The Republic of Samsung

A common nickname for South Korea is ‘The Republic of Samsung’, which describes the national pride and influence the conglomerate holds in addition to being responsible for more than 20% of South Korea’s export.

Unionizing is legal in South Korea but difficult in a society that favours conglomerates, says the 31-year old attorney, Mr Ha Kyung Ryng, who is providing legal counseling to workers trying to form unions in Samsung Electronics.

“There is a lot of interference from the company: penalties if you join the union, threats of being fired, threats if you participate in union activities or protests. A one-person protest is legal in Korea, but all the security guards from Samsung come down and block them, they show them away and they beat them, and the police do nothing”, says Mr Ha Kyung Ryng.

South Korea has never ratified the ILO conventions, ‘Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise’ or ‘Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining’.
This means, the right to strike is limited and strikes considered illegal by authorities are punishable with large fines.

A small step towards rights

Outside the Samsung Electronics HQ in May, the protests from mourning union members of the death of Yeom HoSeok continued for three days. The three day period is how long a korean funeral takes.
Yeom HoSeok was hired on a contract basis for Samsung Electronics Service, and he was also helping his co-workers form a union in Busan-Yangsan.

According to union members and friends of Yeom HoSeok, management had substantially reduced assignments for him, and by the time of his suicide he earned $400 (294 euro) a month in a country with a average monthly wage for an engineer of $3083 (2308 euro). Yeom HoSeok felt he was being harassed by his company because of his union activity.
According to Korean media, the demonstrations continued for 41 days until 28th of June, where Samsung Electronics Service workers seemed to reach a tentative agreement with management on wage, working conditions and unionisation.

Chong Hyewon, Executive Director of the International Department at the Korean Metal Workers Union which represents the protesting workers, welcomed the agreement.
“This struggle is historic in that it represents the first time a mass-organised union of Samsung workers has achieved a collectively bargained framework agreement for trade union recognition and working conditions at Samsung, creating a fissure in Samsung’s 76-year ‘no union’ corporate policy”.

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The Human Cost of Tablets Mon, 29 Dec 2014 13:02:41 +0000 She was just 21 years old, when she died in the backseat of her fathers taxi. Yumi  Whang and her parents were on the way to the hospital for one of her treatments. For two years, Yumi had suffered from severe cancer, myeloid leukemia, a disease only 3 in 100.000 Koreans get, according to Journal of Korean Medical Science. And yet, the past year numbers of leukemia cases have been dramatically rising in South Korea.

As of March 2014, more than 300 Korean workers in the electronics industry have been diagnosed, not only with various forms of leukemia but also several cases of multiple sclerosis and aplastic anemia. All of them have been employed in the electronics industry in South Korea. The vast majority of them were employed at Samsung Electronics.
More than 100 known cases of cancer victims, who had previously worked at Samsung Electronics, have died according to the group, ‘Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry’ (SHARPS).

A dream job

Getting a job at Samsung Electronics is a dream for most young Koreans who live in one of the provinces of Seoul, where opportunity rarely comes by. This was the case for the 19-year old Yumi Hwang who lived with her parents in the village Sokcho and had just graduated from high school in October 2003, when she got a job at Samsung’s Giheung plant.

”She was so happy,” Mr Hwang remembers, smiling.

It was Yumis first job, and she was looking forward to live with the other, mostly female, workers in the dormitories at the Giheung plant.
Yumi worked as an operator in line 3, where she was wet-cleaning manually. All the workers had to wear a bunny suit. Garments that would protect the electronics from dust, but allegedly not the workers from chemicals.

Between 500 and 1000 different chemicals are used in the semiconductor industry, including many carcinogens like solvents (trichloroethylene, benzene, dichloroethane), arsenic, and heavy metals like cadmium and lead. Workers are also exposed to electromagnetic fields as well as ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.

At first, Yumi’s father thought that her frequent nausea, dizziness and bruises was nothing serious, but a health check with her doctor quickly determined her diagnosis in June 2005. Yumi had leukemia and began immediate treatment.

The morning of March 6 2007, Mr and Mrs Hwang began the three hours well-known drive to the hospital, where Yumi was receiving treatment. Yumi was lying in the back seat, they were less than an hour away from the hospital, and they had just stopped for some rice. Yumi was sweating and then freezing and when Yumi’s mother turned to comfort her daughter, she was no longer breathing.

“Her mother gently closed Yumi’s eyes, and as I was standing there it occurred to me that we were in the middle of the road,” Mr Hwang says quietly.
“I put a blanket over my daughter, and we drove back home”.

Victims of tablet production

Ten years earlier, the 17th of January 1995, another young girl, the 19-year-old senior high school student Suk-young Lee, started working at the exact same line 3 at the Samsung Giheung Factory. In 2003, she and Yumi Hwang worked together as operators, but after a few years, she started getting rashes and respiratory diseases.

In June 2006, Suk-young Lee discovered she was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage and not more than one month later, she was diagnosed with the same kind of leukemia as Yumi. In August 2003 she died from aggressive leukemia, 31 years old.

39-year-old Seong-ok Lee has worked in line 3 with Suk-young Lee for ten years:
“I was only introduced to production processes, never any safety measures,” she says.

Seong-ok Lee was mainly assigned to work in photolithography processes. She remembers the first days of work at Samsung.
“No one ever told me about the chemicals I was working with or the dangers related to my work. The older workers talked about risks but mainly to protect the products we were working with. They told me, that if I had chemicals in my eyes, I should rinse quickly. Nothing else”.

High levels of radiation

Seong-ok Lee was only 18 when she started working at the Samsung Giheung plant at the same time as Suk-young Lee in 1995. Six days a week, eight hours a day or night, since they were three teams working in shifts, and then two days off. The pay was good for an 18-year-old high school student, 1,2 million won (1561 dollars) a month.

But not enough to risk the life of her unborn child, so when Seong-ok Lee in 2005 realized she was pregnant, she resigned from Samsung Electronics.
“It was common knowledge that you shouldn’t keep working in the semiconductor industry if you were pregnant because there is a high risk of a miscarriage or that the baby will be born with deformities,” Seong-ok Lee says today.

The safety precautions for her unborn child didn’t apply to herself, and in 2011 she found out that she had thyroid cancer.
“My feelings overwhelmed me, I couldn’t believe, that I had cancer in my body”, she remembers.
“When I discovered what kind of chemicals I was working with and the level of radiation my body was exposed to during my work, I was certain. I asked the doctor if my diagnosis, in his opinion, could be related to my previous work at Samsung, and he said that it was likely, but hard to find documentation”.

Is cancer related to IT industry?

Piles of different research have tried to examine whether the semiconductor industry causes cancer amongst its workers. Some research claims that this is not the case. A study funded by Samsung and conducted by Environ, an international environmental and human health consultancy, could not find correlation between workplace environment and employee illness at Samsung’s semiconductor operations.

Others, like a sample analysis by the Educational-Industrial Institute of Seoul National University, however, show a somewhat contradictory result. The study concluded, that even though the study had limitations ‘including healthy worker effects, information bias and insufficient power, all of which are associated with underestimation’, there was an ‘excess risks for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), leukemia, brain tumor and breast cancer’. The study also pointed to ‘reproductive risks from fabrication jobs, including spontaneous abortion, congenital malformation and reduced fertility’.

Outsourcing of a sick industry

Cancer clusters in the electronics industry is a well-known phenomenon from USA and Europe in the 90ies, that moved to Asia with the outsourcing of a lot of manufacturing industries during 2000.
In 1980, the California Department of Industrial Relation reported that semiconductor workers were exposed to carcinogens and toxic agents. At IBM, 12 workers contracted cancer, but when they filed a lawsuit to get their diagnosis recognized as work related, none of the plaintiffs were upheld in court.

In Scotland, The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a study that pointed to an increased risk of National Semiconductor UK workers contracting certain kinds of cancer. According to the study, female workers were at two to three times higher risk of developing lung cancer, four to five times higher for stomach cancer and five times higher for breast cancer. Male workers had a four times greater risk of brain cancer compared to the rest of the population.

Global supply chains and expansion of the electronics industry have spread cases of cancer to most of Asia. In the 1990s four workers died and 200 workers were diagnosed with lead poisoning in one Thailand HDD company. Since, similar incidents have been detected in India, Taiwan, Malaysia and China.

In China, hundreds of workers at Nokia and Apple factories are still exposed to toxic chemicals, despite multiple statements from Apple saying that the toxic chemicals have been removed from their production, claims the non-profit organization Green America.

Only three cases recognized

Samsung Electronics, despite South Korea founded and based, is a global supplier of microchips to the majority of the electronics industry, including market leader Apple.
In South Korea, the government has investigated cancer risk among semiconductor workers in response to the rising concern over cancer cluster in Samsung Electronics.

The 23rd of June 2011, Yumi Hwang and the relatives of Suk-young Lee won their first administrative litigation case against Samsung Electronics on occupational disease. In its ruling, the court said:
“Even if the cause of the acute myeloid leukemia that occurred in the late Ms. Hwang has not been clearly ascertained in medical terms, it is possible to deduce that the leukemia arose or was expedited through her continued exposure to various hazardous chemicals while working on the No. 3 line at the Giheung workplace semiconductor plant, and also through her exposure to ionizing radiation, albeit in very doses.”

Sorry – but not responsible

In 2011, Samsung Electronics invested §88 million in improvement in their semiconductor infrastructure, and according to the company, Samsung ‘manages chemical exposure levels to ensure they remain significantly below any level that could cause harm to humans and the environment’.

May 14th 2014, seven years after Yumi Hwangs death, Samsung Electronics apologized to the victims.
“Several workers at our production facilities suffered from leukemia and other incurable diseases, which also led to some deaths”, Kwon Oh-hyun, the CEO of the Samsung Electronics, said in a statement.
“We should have settled the issue earlier, and we are deeply heartbroken that we failed to do so and express our deep apology. We will make due compensation to the victims and the families”. The company has begun negotiations with the victims and their families through SHARPS about the size of compensation, but they maintain that cancer cases are not work related.


November 7th, 2014,  a Seoul court ordered the government to compensate a woman who died of a brain tumor after working at a Samsung Electronics Co. plant, recognizing her as an industrial disaster victim as her death was linked to Samsung Electronics’ work environment. Lee Yun-jeong, 32, died in 2012. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 2010 after having worked at a Samsung semiconductor plant in central South Korea from 1997 to 2003. The Korean Workers’ Compensation & Welfare Service (KCOMWEL) refused to cover her medical treatment after a probe by the Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute (OSHARI) showed no link between her illness and the work carried out at the factory in Asan, some 80 kilometers south of Seoul. Lee Yun-jeong filed a lawsuit to reverse the decision in 2011 but died a year later. Her widowed husband took over as plaintiff along with her former colleague, Yu Myeng-hwa, who was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, an irreversible blood disorder, in 2001. Yu, 32, had worked at the same factory from 2000 to 2003. The Seoul Administrative Court ruling said the plant’s environment appeared to have led to Lee Yun-jeong’s death, and the government should have covered the costs of her treatment.

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Overtime turned into flextime at Hungary’s electronics factories Tue, 15 Jan 2013 14:31:14 +0000 Low wages, use of flextime instead overtime and 12-hour work days varying between day and night shifts. These are among the challenges that workers at electronics factories in Hungary face each day, a new report by makeITfair shows. MakeITfair has investigated the working conditions at Hungarian factories in Hungary owned by the electronics giants Nokia, Samsung, Foxconn and Flextronics.

Eastern Europe the new Asia?

Hungary has become one of the most important players in the European electronics industry. There are tax incentives, low export tariffs, the country is close to the West European market, the infrastructure is well-developed and labour is cheap. This has prompted electronics giants such as Nokia, Samsung and Foxconn to move some of their production to Hungary. Although the components are still manufactured in Asia, much of the assembly work is now carried out in Hungary.

Flextime a little too flexible

Hungary’s labour rules also make it attractive for companies to move their production to the country. The labour rules permit a flexible time registration system which can turn overtime into flextime. In the so-called ”Time-bank system”, working hours are not calculated per day but over a longer period. This gives the employer flexibility to pay a regular wage rate instead of overtime payment over a period. According to the report, the ”Time-bank system” violates international labour standards, which set a work week limit of 60 hours, 12 of which should be paid as overtime.

Long work days detrimental to health

The long work days at a low wage is not the only concern for the Hungarian factory workers who assemble mobile phones for European consumers. The survey documents that health and safety is also affected by the 12-hour work days, which can vary between night and day shifts. Problems documented included dizziness, back pain and fatigue. At Flextronics’ factory the working conditions are so taxing that an ambulance from the local hospital stops by several times per week to pick up employees who either feel ill, have passed out, or suffer from high blood pressure or stress.

Strategies and compliance is not enough

Although the examined companies comply with Hungarian legislation and their global CSR strategies have been implemented and are monitored locally in Hungary, this is insufficient to prevent violation of fundamental labour rights, the survey argues. ”Maybe the factories comply with Hungarian rules, but it is still Samsung and Nokia’s responsibility to ensure that their products are manufactured under decent conditions,” says Claus Jørgensen of the Danish Consumer Council to Claus Jørgensen advises consumers to make demands on the companies when choosing which products to place under the Christmas tree. However, he acknowledges that it is difficult for consumers to perceive how the products have been made.

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