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Samsung gets closer to deal over workers who died

July 24,2018
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An 11-year dispute between Samsung Electronics and the relatives of workers who died of diseases, including leukemia, allegedly caused by toxic chemicals at the company’s semiconductor and display factories is finally coming to an end.

Samsung and families who have been demanding compensation from the tech giant vowed on Sunday they would “unconditionally” accept a set of proposals from an independent arbitration committee to resolve the conflict.

The announcement followed the committee’s warning four days earlier it would shut itself down if Samsung and families of victims didn’t promise to comply with its recommended solutions. The two sides are set to sign a document this morning at a law firm in central Seoul that will agree to any arbitration decision. The final decision will be made in early October.

The arbitration decision is expected to include damages, a public apology from Samsung and some kind of charitable activities from the company. The relatives will have to end a protest in front of Samsung headquarters that has lasted for over 1,000 days, sources say.

“Agreeing to accept the arbitration decision - regardless of the content - was not easy,” said a Samsung spokesman.

The winding up of the high-profile dispute comes as Samsung struggles with several ongoing issues, from government pressure to change its shareholding structure to a probe into its alleged sabotage of workers setting up labor unions. Resolving what is dubbed the “semiconductor leukemia case” is a chance to mend its image. In a similar vein, Samsung’s de facto Chairman Lee Jae-yong is getting ready to announce new jobs and investment plans.

The dispute at the world’s No. 1 producer of memory chips and smartphones began in the wake of the death of Hwang Yu-mi in 2007. After working at Samsung’s Giheung chip factory in Gyeonggi from January 2004 through July 2005, she was diagnosed with acute leukemia in 2005 and died in March 2007. Hwang is assumed to have been exposed to benzene and radiation.

Controversy over the cause of her death was sparked by her father filing claims for victims of industrial disasters with the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service three months after her death. He went on to become a founding member of Banolim, which consists of relatives of former Samsung factory workers as well as some civic activists, that launched in March 2008.

Banolim, a Korean acronym for “an organization devoted to protecting the health and human rights of semiconductor laborers,” claimed 76 people died of diseases related to their work at Samsung facilities.

Kwon Oh-hyun, then-chief executive of Samsung Electronics, made a public apology in May 2014 to help ease the feud. But negotiations between Samsung and Banolim stalled for years and some Banolim members left the organization to launch a group called Family Countermeasure Committee to urge “quick compensation” from Samsung in September 2014.

In three months, an independent arbitration committee to resolve the conflict was formed at Family Committee’s proposal but the three parties - Samsung, Banolim and Family Committee - failed to find common ground in the first round of negotiations in July 2015.

In September 2015, Samsung earmarked 100 billion won ($88.4 million) for funds to pay compensation to some families and conduct research and development on work-related diseases but with several conditions: recipients should have worked at least a year at semiconductor or LCD facilities and the types of diseases covered were limited to breast cancer, brain tumors, leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Over 130 relatives of workers who died or have suffered diseases received nearly 20 billion won combined as of February.

However, Banolim was against those restrictions and started waging a sit-in protest in front of Samsung Electronics’ Seocho office in Southern Seoul with loudspeakers and leaflets on Oct. 7, 2015. They celebrated the 1,000-day anniversary of the protest on July 2.

In April, the so-called Samsung ombudsman committee announced the results of its analysis of Samsung’s working environment.

BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun@joongang.co.kr]