A public apology
After Yu-mi’s death, her father, Hwang Sang-ki, filed a claim with the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service. The agency said there was no evidence that Yu-mi’s leukemia was work related and rejected the claim. With the help of SHARPS, Hwang took the agency to court in 2011 and got a lucky break: An internal Samsung document was leaked to SHARPS administrator Lee Jong-ran.
“It showed a precise list of the toxic materials that were used in every process within the factory, not all the materials but the major ones, and they were really, really toxic,” Lee said.
The list included chemicals such as hydrogen chloride, ammonia, benzene, hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid and trichloroethylene.
SHARPS found an expert to look at the list and testify about the dangers of the chemicals. The court agreed to hear testimony from Samsung employees who worked in the same area as Yu-mi; after the workers told their stories, the court overturned the compensation service’s decision.
The three-judge panel said “the prolonged exposure to various toxic chemicals during [Yu-mi’s] work … gave rise to or at least accelerated the development of acute myeloid leukemia; thus, a proximate causal relationship … seems considerable.”
The compensation service appealed. Samsung got approval from the court to intervene in the appeal and hired several of the country’s top lawyers.
In May 2014, after years of ignoring the memorials and the demonstrations, Samsung’s vice-chairman, Kwon Oh-hyun, offered a public apology on national TV.
“We regret that a solution for this delicate matter has not been found in a timely manner, and we would like to use this opportunity to express our sincerest apology to the affected people,” he said. “We should have settled the issue earlier, and we feel deep regret that we failed to do so and express our sincerest apology.”
Samsung promised to stop intervening in court cases brought against the compensation service and to compensate sick workers and the families of those who died, including Yu-mi’s father, Hwang Sang-ki, and Han Hye-kyung, the young woman from Chuncheon who had a brain tumor removed.
Samsung officials declined to be interviewed for this article. Instead, a company spokesman, Park Ji-youn, recorded answers to a reporter’s questions.
Asked how Samsung protects workers from chemical hazards, Park said, “We closely regulate chemical exposure throughout the manufacturing process from storage to disposal. All Samsung employees receive information during mandated training about the chemicals that they handle including possible harm posed by those substances.”
Samsung refused to provide a copy of its hazardous-materials policy, saying in an email that its internal policies and practices could not be shared. It did not explain why details on its chemical safety training needed to be kept secret.
Asked why Samsung had compensated former employees, Park said, “It was the right thing to do. Not because we have legal or court-ordered mandates to do so or even any scientific evidence to link these illnesses to the workplace.”
In August 2014, the Seoul High Court rejected the compensation service’s appeal and ordered it to provide lost wages and funeral expenses to the families of the two former Samsung workers who died of leukemia.
Hwang Sang-ki believes the decision will change the way future compensation claims are handled.
“Because of this victory I think the more people can get some consciousness about the hazardous workplace problem,” he said. “And also, more workers can be protected in the future and the more victims can be compensated.”
Despite Samsung’s establishment of the financial aid fund last month, activists remain unsatisfied. The company rejected the idea of paying for a nonprofit foundation that would oversee the aid program and develop measures to prevent workplace disease. A non-binding mediation committee has asked the company to reconsider.