In this interview, Dr. Jeong-Ok Kong of the Korean Institute of Labour Safety and Health speaks about the formation and challenges of SHARPS, the Supporters for Health And Right of People in Semiconductor industry, in South Korea, and the network’s hopes for international solidarity on issues of health in the electronics industry as well as against the harmfulness of neoliberal globalization.
AMRC: You are becoming known in Asia as the one speaking for SHARPs, a group of supporters of workers and victims in the electronics industry. Can you tell us more about SHARPS and why it formed?
SHARPs began from the death of a young worker in a Samsung semiconductor factory. That was Hwang Yu-mi. She entered the factory just before graduation from high school, and worked in the clean room. But only after two years, she got leukemia, and finally died on March 6, 2007. She was only 22.
Dr. Kong with a sign protesting against Samsung and demanding justice for leukaemia victims, 1 May 2010.
she was fighting against cancer, some guys from Samsung visited her house. They promised her father, Hwang Sang-gi, that even though her cancer was not work-related, the company could support the medical fee out of mercy, in exchange for Yu-mi’s resignation.
Later Mr. Hwang came to realize that some fellow workers had got the same cancers as Yu-mi, and raised doubts about the work-relatedness of the leukemia. But when he raised doubts, Samsung sneered saying ‘How dare you fight against this big company?’ and denied its own promise for the support of Yu-mi’s medical fees.
Samsung’s attitude made Mr. Hwang realize that he had been deceived, so he looked for someone who could fight against that ’big company’. His efforts called a few activists together, who finally organized a ‘Joint committee for investigation of the leukemia and the achievement of labour rights at Samsung Semiconductor’ on 20 November 2007. Later, this joint committee changed its name into SHARPs, Supporters for Health And Right of People in Semiconductor industry, to widen the range of action toward the whole semiconductor and electronics industry.
AMRC: What kind of groups are in SHARPs?
There are more than 20 organizations in SHARPs; labour movement organizations such as Gyeonggi Local branch of KCTU and Action Committee for Reinstatement of Laid-off Samsung Workers; human right groups such as Dasan Human Rights Center; OSH movement groups such as the Solidarity for Healthy Labour World, Association of Victims of Occupational Injuries, and Korea Institute of Labour Safety and Health; and local divisions of political movement groups such as the Socialist Party, New Progressive Party, and Preparatory Committee for Socialist Workers Party.
AMRC: Are you fighting for labour rights or occupational safety and health (OSH) rights?
Is it possible to actualize OSH rights without fundamental labour rights such as the right to organize? Never. Are OSH rights different from labour rights? No. OSH rights can be realized only when workers themselves have the power to control their working process and workplace as they need.
It doesn’t seem to be common that more than 20 organizations form a network due to only one worker’s death, especially in a company without a labour union. The cause that made it possible was the consensus that this struggle is not for achieving compensation of only one worker, but for pursuing the labour rights of all the workers in Samsung, a corporation which has been notorious for suppression of any kind of activities to organize workers. Furthermore, it could possibly influence other workers outside of Samsung which also have no unions, through this struggle.
Also, the OSH system of Korea is very poor in terms of workers’ rights. The right to participate in routine preventive activities are very limited in the Korean OSH Act, and the minimum regulations on employers have been reduced since the late 1990s. Even though there is a national workers’ compensation system, the rights to get proper treatment and rehabilitation have been seriously threatened, especially in cases of occupational diseases. For example, the total number of compensated cases from occupational cancers was only 4 nationwide in the year 2009, because most of the cancer victims couldn’t prove the so-called ‘work-relatedness’ of their own disease. We need to change this business-friendly government, law, and system for achieving workers’ rights. That means our struggle can’t but be a political one.
Based on this consensus, SHARPs built its three major goals from the beginning. First, to achieve worker’s compensation for the victims and to reveal the truth; even though revealing the cause of illness is needed to prevent future harm, it must not be a prerequisite for compensation. The government must compensate unless they prove the illness are not related with work, because the worker’s compensation ought to be given to injured workers as a social security in Korea. Also, investigation of the workplace to reveal what the causes are and how many workers have been affected, and regulation of the company based on the ‘precautionary principle’ are the responsibilities of the government, too.
The second goal of SHARPs is to achieve labour rights in Samsung; all the legitimate labour rights are just ‘dead letters’ at Samsung. They don’t have the right to know about the hazards of the workplace, to organize themselves into a union. We believe workers can achieve their own rights by organizing themselves and empowerment from solidarity.
The third is to expose the dark side of globalization based on neoliberalism; regulations of workplace and environment are loose in Korea compared to developed countries. The remarkable growth of industry in Korea has been established at the sacrifice of worker’s right and life. People need to know this true nature of globalization.
AMRC: Do you believe international solidarity is important in your struggle against the Korean company Samsung? Why?
International solidarity is needed and important in our struggle. Because even though the ruler of Samsung, Lee Gun-hee, is Korean, the workers of Samsung are in various countries.The electronics industry is one of the important business areas of Samsung, and it employs approximately 164,600 workers in 179 offices in 61 countries in this sector. Its manufacturing factories are located in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Hungary, Slovakia, Brazil, Mexico, and the US. There is cooperation as well as competition among these factories, and this is not a unique condition of Samsung but a general one of other companies of various sectors. Companies take advantage of this kind of network not only to maximize the efficiency of production, but also to suppress and bust workers’ struggle for labour rights. To achieve labour rights in this kind of network for profit, we need to make workers’ own network of solidarity.
AMRC: What does ‘international solidarity’ mean to you? What do you seek from international supporters? In your experience so far, what have been the achievements and lessons?
SHARPs came to learn that workers of IBM in US, National Semiconductor in Scotland, and RCA in Taiwan have been suffering from the same problems as workers of Samsung in Korea. That means we have an opportunity to make a solidarity network for workers. But our experiences were so limited that we had to learn, discuss, and try thoroughly new things.
The ‘Memorial Week of Occupational Deaths of Semiconductor Workers’ in March of this year was our first trial. SHARPs invited activists and workers who had been fighting against electronics companies, from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and US. One of the focuses of the Memorial Week was ‘direct’ participation and communication. Even though the range and number of participants were small, all of them could directly be involved in all the programmes and communicate with one another during those five days. It was the first experience of direct international solidarity activity for many of the Korean participants. They could feel that international solidarity is not a difficult thing that must depend on a special person.
Even though I’m a beginner in international solidarity too, I feel the challenges of international solidarity in how to communicate and organize at the grassroot level. That means we must find out how to make solidarity based on direct activities and how to contribute to organizing the workers and people to demand their own needs and to fight for it through international solidarity.
For this purpose, what I feel to be the most urgent thing in Korea is to overcome dependency on a small number of activists or personnel. Direct communication and involvement are not easy to achieve but essential for the empowerment of workers, not only in international solidarity but also in all fields of progressive movements. One of the difficulties is the differences in historical and social environments. Sympathy with a total stranger is impossible. Consumers in the ‘Northern world’ can’t understand Asian workers’ demand easily. Even within Asia, each of the countries has its own history and culture.
I don’t think we can remove these obstacles in a short time, but I believe we can overcome through continuous trials. The beginning is not so difficult. Let’s start from discussing what to do, where, and with whom, based on these situations with many obstacles both inside and outside of us. And not be afraid of trials and errors.
International activists attending AMRC’s meeting in Hong Kong on the impact of ‘corporation social responsibility’ express their condemnation of Samsung for killing workers while claiming to be a ‘good e-Steward’. (See ‘Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): A Vehicle for International Solidarity?’, especially Box 2, in this issue.)