Friday, May 9, 2014

Smartphone factory workers exposed to dangerous chemicals

The number of victims of toxic chemical exposures keeps
rising, advocacy groups say.
Dangerous chemicals are killing workers in factories that assemble processor chips for Apple and Samsung smartphones, advocacy groups claim.

Worker representatives, advocacy groups and academics are demanding manufacturers lift their standards to eradicate the dangerous conditions causing occupational leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

With more than 100 victims and counting, they claim companies have so far turned a blind eye, and said that Samsung is actively subverting the victims' pursuit of compensation and justice.

The problem originates in 'clean rooms', dust-free environments where semi-conductors, used in electronics such as smartphones and LCD TVs, are produced.

Only armed with 'white bunny-suits' designed to minimise contamination, workers frequently handle and inhale chemical cocktails whose purpose is to sterilise materials, including wafers.

These chemicals include benzene, a carcinogen, and trichloroethylene, which are known to cause occupational leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

As the air is rapidly re-circulated, these enclosures incubate the cancer.

Toiling for prolonged periods every day, workers have contracted the disease just a few years after they started working at Samsung. Some died soon after.

In 2012, university researchers investigated 17 Koreans workers at Samsung's Giheung semiconductor plant who had contracted the cancers. They recommended all workers should immediately be protected from the potential exposures to chemicals.

However, they said more research was required to prove a formal link with cancer and semiconductor production, because Samsung hadn't granted access to the working conditions.

Samsung victims seek compensation

Korean-based worker rights group Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS) is assisting more than 50 Samsung workers trying to claim workers' compensation from the government.

The first case was filed in 2007 and their ongoing efforts have achieved mixed results.

The government's workers' compensation fund initially refused to pay the victims, or their families, said SHARPS spokeswoman Dr Jeong-ok Yoo Kong. These decisions were subsequently overturned by the courts.

Now the government – with Samsung's help – is appealing to the country's High Court.

"Samsung has been joining the lawsuit to support the government as a 'name of reference' for the defendant," Dr Kong told Fairfax Media.

The victims want the government to pay compensation in order to set a precedent for all Samsung workers.

"They just want to open the door," she said.

The case will next be heard on May 15.

According to Korean reports, Justice Party representative Sim Sang-jung plans to introduce a bill into the South Korean parliament forcing Samsung to apologise and compensate the victims.

Kim Jun-shik, an executive vice-president of Samsung Electronics, last week told reporters in South Korea that the company is reviewing the proposals "in a sincere manner", and will make an official response soon. The company maintains a web page with information on benzene. It says it does not use benzene in its fabrication processes, but that researchers have found traces of it in its factories.

The United Nations International Labour Organisation has found serious chemical-related incidents happen in workplaces, and said there needs to be a global response by governments, employers, and workers to address the issue.

Global problem

The problems aren't limited to Korea's Samsung.

In China, 52 workers diagnosed with occupational leukaemia signed a declaration to ban benzene. Many of these worked at factories in Hubei where semiconductors are fabricated for the iPhone.

Apple has previously said it leads the industry in removing toxins from its products, and requires suppliers to meet, or exceed, American safety standards.

Ms White said occupational cancer is seriously under-diagnosed and subsequently under-reported by the government. It gives global brands a false sense of security and prevents workers from accessing the medical compensation they are owed.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald. This article has been edited for length.

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