The global electronics industry boasts of technical perfection and seamless production. But look closer and you can spot assembly lines tangled with rotten nerve endings and veins swollen with toxins. Workers of the high-tech economy face hazards that echo the lethal smokestacks of Dickensian England.
This time, however, it’s not Manchester where workers are ailing, but the semiconductor capitals of the world in East Asia. South Korea, which together with China leads the world in production of brand-name electronics, has been slowly awakening to the public health fallout of workplace poisoning. Two of South Korea’s major semiconductor producers, SK Hynix and Samsung, are coming under heavy pressure to investigate and pay for an epidemic of occupational illness that many trace back to their production lines.
A 2014 analysis by Hankoryeah newspaper found that “at least 13 people who worked at SK Hynix between 1995 and 2010 died of lympho-hematopoietic malignancies (five from leukemia and five from non-Hodgkin lymphomas), while at least 11 people working at the semiconductor division at Samsung Electronics during the same period died of the same diseases.”
At both SK Hynix and Samsung, over a 15-year period, “around 80 people altogether fell ill with lympho-hematopoietic diseases. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma rates were particularly elevated among women.
Though proving a direct causal link to either of the firms is difficult, SK Hynix is now moving forward with a precautionary approach by implementing an independent investigation committee’s recommendations for long-term compensation. Advocates hope the measures will lead to strengthened chemical safeguards across the manufacturing process.
Meanwhile, the South Korea-based No More Deaths campaign has for years sought to hold Samsung accountable for a spate of cancers, which the group says has resulted in more than 70 worker deaths. Although the company recently relented to years of pressure from victims’ advocates by allowing workers to apply for compensation from a special $85.8 million fund, survivors have rejected the plan, arguing that it has stonewalled victims, and that even the latest promises of compensation and reform are whitewashed and lacking transparency. They also object to the restrictions Samsung sought to place on the fund, such as rules limiting the number of diseases covered or requiring several years of employment with the company.