Friday, April 11, 2014

Samsung's War at Home


Samsung's War at Home

Hwang Yu-mi at home, a few months before her death from leukemia on March 6, 2007
Courtesy StopSamsung
Hwang Yu-mi at home, a few months before her death from leukemia on March 6, 2007
Just inside his single-story home, built of concrete blocks and coated in turquoise paint, Hwang Sang-ki, a 58-year-old Korean taxi driver, sits on a floor mat. He’s clasping a small handbag, once bright white and now dull after years on a shelf. He pulls out a snapshot of 13 smiling young women, all co-workers at Samsung Electronics(005930:KS), off-duty and posing in three rows, each embracing or leaning into the other. The leaves of a tree behind them are turning golden in the autumn chill.
“Here,” says Hwang, pointing to two women in the center of the group. Both had the same job at the same semiconductor factory, on the same line, standing side by side at the same workstation, dipping computer chips into the same vat of chemicals. Both got a particularly aggressive form of the blood cancer known as acute myeloid leukemia. One was his daughter, Yu-mi. In South Korea, only about 3 out of every 100,000 people die of leukemia. “They worked together, and they died,” says Hwang. The snapshot is among a few private memories Hwang keeps of his late daughter.
The story of the two women, and dozens of Samsung workers with leukemia and other rare cancers, is now a very public one in South Korea. In February and March, Koreans could see two movies depicting the seven-year battle led by the Hwangs and other families against Korea’s biggest and most influential corporation.
Another Promise, released in February, tells the story of a thinly veiled Hwang and his daughter, who went to work at a Samsung semiconductor plant in 2003, when she was 18, and died at 22.
Hwang, who has deep smile wrinkles radiating from the sides of his brown eyes and a buzz cut of salt-and-pepper hair, is portrayed by Park Chul-min, a 47-year-old actor with 70 film roles in his career. His character in Another Promise battles with the fictitiously named company Jinsung. The Korea Herald called the movie “a meaningful achievement in Korean cinema, as well as for Korean democracy,” not so much because of its quality but because of how it was made. Without a major studio backer, the director and producer raised almost 15 percent of the $2 million budget from hundreds of individuals via crowdsourcing and more than half from about 100 small investors. It’s the first Korean film produced this way.
Empire of Shame, a documentary, hit theaters on March 6. Three years in the making, it was shot with intimate access to Hwang and other families of Samsung workers. It focuses on the broader movement Hwang launched to illuminate the use of carcinogens in electronics factories, especially semiconductor plants. Since he began, activists have discovered 58 cases of leukemia and other blood-related cancers across several Samsung plants. Samsung declined to discuss specific cases for this article, saying in a statement that it spent about $88 million in 2011 on the maintenance and improvement of its safety-related infrastructure.
“I’m just hoping that you wouldn’t say anything against Samsung,” the executive told Hwang
The main goal for the movement is to wrest compensation for cancer-stricken workers from a Korean government insurance fund. People such as Hwang and the filmmakers are pushing a conversation into mainstream Korean culture about some of the costs of the country’s miraculous economic rise, which happened in large part on the shoulders of Samsung and the rest of the technology industry, global symbols of pride for many Koreans. It’s driving a reexamination of trade-offs in South Korea’s past, when the foundation for today’s prosperity was built by an authoritarian government working hand in hand with domestic corporate partners who were given great power in exchange for rapid growth.

About 20 miles south of Seoul, inside a fenced and secured compound, the Giheung semiconductor factory rises near the wooded shores of a man-made reservoir. The factory is a wide white box sprouting smokestacks and curled tubes from its roof, with Samsung’s familiar blue-and-white logo across its front. Built in 1984, the plant was the leading semiconductor factory in the country at a time when chips accounted for about 80 percent of all revenue at Samsung Electronics. Giheung’s assembly lines were a prestigious place to work.
Many Koreans revere Samsung. In part that’s because its success mirrors their own climb from a war that divided a country, killed millions, and left millions more destitute. In 1961, eight years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate, South Korea’s per capita gross domestic product was $92, less than that of Sudan, Sierra Leone, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. By last year, South Koreans had the world’s 15th-largest economy. Almost 24 percent of GDP came from the revenue of the Samsung Group, a conglomerate made up of dozens of businesses including a life insurance company, a heavy-construction company, the world’s second-biggest shipbuilder, and of course Samsung Electronics.

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