By Park Si-soo
A group of former Samsung Electronics workers, along with family members of deceased workers, Monday sued a state labor welfare institute for its failure to recognize their cases of leukemia as illnesses contracted while working.
If their bid is successful, they would be eligible for compensation from the institute and would prove that Samsung's chip-making process poses hazards to workers' health.
The plaintiffs ― three former assembly workers at the world's largest semiconductor producer and the parents of three deceased employees ― filed the suit with the Seoul Administrative Court, claiming they came down with the form of blood cancer after having been exposed to toxic chemicals at worksites in Giheung, Gyeonggi Province, and Onyang, South Chungcheong Province.
The lawsuit came after the Korea Workers' Compensation and Welfare Service refused to compensate them, citing its own inspection report that found no leukemia-inducing substances, such as benzene, at the worksites. Samsung also said that all its worksites are free of toxic chemicals.
"We will try to prove that the assembly lines of the two factories were seriously contaminated with cancer-inducing substances including benzene at the time when the victims worked there," lawyer Park Young-man, who represents the plaintiffs, told reporters. "This is not only for the victims but also for the health of the thousands of employees now working at the same sites."
Citing medical reports, the medical doctor-turned-lawyer said leukemia is a rare disease that strikes two or three people out of 100,000 in general conditions.
"Over the past 10 years, a total of 22 patients at the factories have contracted acute leukemia. Of them, seven have already died. Given this, I'd bet there is something wrong with the factories," Park said.
Ahead of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs and experts from Seoul National University conducted an on-the-spot inspection, the lawyer said, and found that cleaning materials there contained benzene.
The report was made public in October last year by Rep. Kim Sang-hee of the main opposition Democratic Party and Rep. Hong Hee-duck of the minor Democratic Labor Party.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies benzene as a carcinogen. Long-term exposure to excessive levels of air-borne benzene can cause leukemia, a potentially fatal cancer.
"My husband and I worked together at Samsung's Giheung factory for years. The company has said its factories are free from toxic chemicals. But it's not true," a widow said on the condition of anonymity. "I used to clean up unidentified liquids on the assembly line without any protective gear. It later turned out that the liquid I was exposed to almost every day contained carcinogens."
Another of the plaintiffs, Hwang Sang-ki, who is from Sokcho, Gangwon Province, lost his daughter in 2007 to leukemia.
"She was healthy. Our family has no history of leukemia. But she came down with it just 20 months after being employed by Samsung as an assembly worker," Hwang said, in tears.