In South Korea, the general public lives with the acceptance that chaebols (members of large family-owned business conglomerates) can get away with anything using money and influence. But in 2018, something happened that changed this perception. Samsung, the biggest conglomerate in South Korea, had to pay out around ₩15.3 billion KRW (about $11.6 million USD) to compensate the families of its deceased workers after an 11-year-long battle that was started by Hwang Sang Ki.
On March 6, 2007, Hwang Sang Ki witnessed his 23-year-old daughter Yumi die in the backseat of his taxi while driving her to the hospital for her cancer treatment. Yumi had been working at Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. in Suwan for five years until she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia.
Upon receiving her diagnosis, Yumi’s father asked her what type of work she did at Samsung. Yumi replied that her job at the semiconductor factory was to coat the wafers in several chemicals. Hwang Sang Ki realized that her illness could have been caused by her work and tried to ask her company for worker’s compensation. But he was repeatedly dismissed.
After Yumi’s death, her father refused to sign a settlement, and the company allegedly forged documents to show that Yumi was not working with chemicals at the factory at all. When he learned that another 30-year-old worker on the same production line as his daughter had also died of leukemia, he decided to push the issue even more.
Being a man with limited resources, Hwang Sang Ki didn’t have any idea where to start his fight. He had already filed a compensation claim with the Korean Workers Compensation and Welfare Service (KCOMWEL). Eventually, he met labor activist and attorney Lee Jong Ran, and the two started an organization called Banolim, translated as Supporters for Health and Rights of People in Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS). With Banolim, the two activists started protests and petitions and gathered on serious illnesses faced by semiconductor workers.
Banolim saw a heart-breaking defeat when KCOMWEL rejected their compensation claim. But Hwang Sang Ki and his people never stepped down. Finally, in 2011 the South Korean courts ruled in favor of the organization’s claims (though partially).
But instead of paying out the compensation as per the court’s ruling, Samsung hired the consulting firm, Environ, to examine the conditions of its semiconductor fabrication facilities. The audit concluded that there was no link between the factory’s working conditions and the workers’ illnesses. Based on this report, Samsung refused to pay anything to the bereaved families.
Despite KCOMWEL’s appeal, the courts stuck to their decision to rule in favor of Banolim. Samsung eventually decided to obey the ruling and set up a fund of ₩100 billion KRW (about $76.3 million USD) for the purpose. However, the company still denied any connection between its materials and the serious ailments suffered by its workers.
In October 2015, protestors, led by Hwang Sang Ki, organized a peaceful sit-in beneath the Samsung headquarters in Seoul, demanding the company change its compensation plan, as Banolim saw it as an unacceptable offering compared to what the families had suffered. The protest went on for 1,000 days.
Finally, Samsung had to give in. In 2018, a mediation took place between the company and Banolim where both parties agreed that Samsung would pay ₩150 million KRW (about $114,000 USD) to each of its current and former workers if they are found to have illnesses due to work-related exposure to dangerous substances.
The President and CEO of Samsung Device Solutions also issued a public apology stating that Samsung had not properly protected its workers against health risks and that the company had not responded to the issues in a timely enough manner. In a press conference following the mediation, Hwang Sang Ki stated that more than getting monetary compensation, his goal was to ensure that these incidents were prevented at all costs.
No apology would be enough when considering the deception and humiliation we experienced over the past 11 years, the pain of suffering from occupational diseases, the pain of losing loved ones
Hwang Sang Ki
Though Banolim succeeded in its legal and moral pursuit, Samsung got away pretty much scot-free. The compensation it paid to the families didn’t even make a dent in its finances since the same year, the company posted a profit of ₩59.3 trillion KRW (about $45.2 billion USD).
In South Korea, chaebols often enjoy immunity from the law since the country is so heavily dependent on them to keep its economy growing. The story of an individual like Hwang Sang Ki speaks of courage as much as it does of horrors in such a social system. To date, Samsung has refused to reveal the specific chemicals and the amounts used in its manufacturing, stating that it is a trade secret. But at least now, South Korean workers have a hopeful example that even a giant like Samsung can be brought down, albeit after years of back-breaking fight.