SEOUL–When Samsung Electronics reached a deal last month with representatives of workers who contracted leukemia and other diseases while working at its factories, the electronics giant painted it as the end of a bitter 9-year dispute.

Memorial to sickened Samsung workers
Memorial to sickened Samsung workers

The reality has been far messier. Even as they have found approval among some sickened workers and surviving families, Samsung’s efforts at resolution have highlighted glaring divisions between the original survivors’ organization and a more pragmatic splinter group, who remain spilt over what constitutes an acceptable settlement.

In January, Samsung agreed to the establishment of an independent ombudsman that would assess safety conditions at its semiconductor and other plants. The deal was in answer to demands for measures to prevent further illness and came after the firm earlier set up a system of compensation following years of denying all responsibility.

None of this has been enough in the eyes of Banolim, a local advocacy group representing families of Samsung employees who contracted incurable diseases or died. Its leader Hwang Sang-ki lost his 23-year-old daughter to leukemia in 2007 after she worked at a semiconductor plant. In 2011, a Seoul court ruled that the younger Hwang’s illness was likely caused or exacerbated by her exposure to radiation and harmful chemicals including benzene. A government-run compensation body had previously rejected her occupational illness claim.

Banolim has railed against Samsung’s refusal to accept legal responsibility for illnesses and deaths among its workers — compensation recipients must sign away their right to future claims — and accused it of intimidating and buying off victims to hide the true scale of the problem.

“What Banolim is calling for is a fair and stable standard for compensation that can give give restitution for all the victims in a fair manner,” Hwang said on Tuesday at a rare forum attended by Samsung officials and representatives of both victims’ groups.

Disease link unclear

The link between Samsung’s working conditions and diseases including cancer remains murky. In 2011, a study commissioned by Samsung and carried out by Environ International Corp, a private US consulting firm, found no evidence of increased risk. In contrast, a peer-reviewed Korean study released last year found increased likelihood of miscarriage and menstrual problems among women working in the country’s semi-conductor and circuit board industry. To date, only a handful of Samsung workers have had their claims of occupational illness recognized by the government or the courts.

Hwang Sang-gi, a founding member of advocacy group Banolim, holds a picture of his daughter Yu-mi
Hwang Sang-ki, a founding member of advocacy group Banolim, holds a picture of his daughter Yu-mi.

Hwang’s group claims that 223 victims have come forward and that many more probably remain hidden in the shadows.

He has declined to reveal the identities of alleged victims, claiming that doing so would put them at risk of intimidation by Samsung.

At Tuesday’s event, which was witness to a deluge of claims and counterclaims, Samsung disputed Banolim’s claimed number of victims and denied the charge of intimidation, which was echoed by several activists at the event.

“We cannot but raise questions about whether this name list actually exists,” said Baik Soo-hyun, Samsung’s chief negotiator on the issue. “In order to make compensation, you have to know who is suffering from disease. And, also, in order to come up with preventative measures you have to understand who contracted what diseases in what places.”

Baik said that if his company had actually ever browbeaten sick workers it would have been “punished under the law.”

Unlike Banolim, The Family Compensation Committee over the Leukemia Issue, the second victims’ group, appears to have little appetite for prolonging a fight with the world’s biggest electronics maker. On Tuesday, it welcomed Samsung’s compensation efforts.

The conglomerate has given undisclosed amounts of money to more than 100 individuals, even as it continues to deny any causal link between its plants and sick workers.

“One hundred and ten people have received compensation based on accurate criteria and standards, but if a handful of people are trying to change the rules or amend the standards of compensation in their interest, then the family committee will not stand by and watch,” said Song Chang-ho, one of the group’s representatives.

Better to settle?

More than once, the breakaway group’s disagreement with Banolim’s hardline stance boiled over into obvious frustration.

“I once asked Banolim as to what kind of plan they had around the compensation issue, and Banolim responded that they don’t have any concrete plans but just said that they will continue fighting Samsung,” said Kim Eun-kyung, another member of the committee.

“However, in the meantime, the victims are slowly dying while they continue to fight. Fighting is not the only answer and solution to end this dispute.”

John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.

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