It appears that trade secrets are more important to Samsung Electronics than the lives of its workers.
A damning new investigative report by the Associated Press has accused the world’s leading smartphone and computer chip company of withholding crucial information about the chemicals used in its factories.
A worker-safety group has raised its voice against the South Korea-based tech giant by documenting over 200 cases of serious illnesses – including leukemia, lupus, lymphoma and multiple sclerosis – among former semi conductor and LCD workers.
Most of the sick laborers are in their mid 20s and 30s. At least 76 have passed away.
“In a situation where people's lives are at stake, [Samsung] brought uninformed kids from the countryside and acted like money is everything, using them as if they were disposable cups,” said 43-year-old Park Min-Sook, a former Samsung chip worker who acquired breast cancer while working at the company.
The South Korean government rarely provides compensation for occupational diseases. Without enough details about the kind of toxins the person is exposed to, the chances of reimbursement are from none to zero.
So how does Samsung, one of Apple and Nokia's largest component suppliers, keep this information hidden?
To put it in two words: trade secrets.
“Our fight is often against trade secrets,” said Lim Ja-woon, a lawyer who has represented 15 sick Samsung workers. “Any contents that may not work in Samsung's favor were deleted as trade secrets.”
In at least six cases involving 10 workers, court documents showed that Samsung asked government officials not to release such data, citing the need to guard trade secrets.
Lim claimed in some court rulings, his clients were unable to access to full reports on facility inspections since they remain Samsung’s property– despite being produced a third party to comply with South Korean law.
Although the federal law bars companies from withholding corporate information needed “to protect the lives, physical safety, and health” of individuals on the basis of trade secrets, the lack of penalties in case of a violation makes it pretty much useless.
Hwang Sang-gi, the father of a 22-year-old Samsung worker who died of leukemia after working in one of its factories, told AP that the conglomerate once offered him $914,000 to buy his silence. That was what prompted him to launch a movement seeking independent inspections of the factories.
“The idea was to deny her illness was an occupational disease and to leave me without any power to fight back,” said Hwang.
Meanwhile, the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency (KOSHA) claims that it is difficult for them to evaluate trade secrets for the fear of being sued by the company for sharing its data.
“We have to keep secrets that belong to our clients,” said Yang Won-baek. “It's about trust.”
Moreover, Samsung Electronics’ website states that it has had “real-time, 24/7 chemical monitoring” in all its facilities since 2007 – the year the government began inquiries into the death of Hwang’s daughter, Yu-mi. However, the company only began monitoring toxic byproducts in the air after a 2012 inspection detected benzene and formaldehyde (known carcinogens) at its chip factories.
Meanwhile, Samsung has issued a statement saying it never “intentionally” blocked workers from accessing such information. It also said there was no case where information disclosure was “illegally prevented,” adding that the company is transparent about all chemicals it is required to disclose.