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“In 10 Years, I Want to Walk Again”: How a Worker Making Circuit Boards Got Sick—and Is Holding Samsung Accountable

While manufacturing circuit boards for Samsung, Hye-kyeong Han was diagnosed with a brain tumor, leading her to undergo a number of surgeries and radiation treatments. She was just 26 years old.
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This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Circuit Boards photo courtesy of IBE Electronics Shenzen

Photo courtesy of IBE Electronics Shenzen.

AGE: 36
OCCUPATION: FORMER FACTORY WORKER
BIRTHPLACE: CHUNCHEON, GANGWON PROVINCE, SOUTH KOREA
INTERVIEWED IN: SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

Circuit Boards
Explainer: Electronics and Human Rights

While manufacturing circuit boards for Samsung, where she had been employed since 1995, Hye-kyeong Han developed unusual symptoms that left her unable to continue working. After a string of visits to various specialists, Hye-kyeong was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004, leading her to undergo a number of surgeries and radiation treatments. She was twenty-six at the time.

Although Hye-kyeong’s cancer is currently in remission, the removal of her cerebellum (the part of the brain responsible for fine muscle movements and maintaining posture and balance) has made speaking and walking difficult. While Hye-kyeong is now able to walk for a few minutes at a time thanks to rehabilitation training, the road to recovery has been slow and difficult.

We interview Hye-kyeong and her mother by phone in 2011. They had arrived at a rehabilitation center in Seoul the day before our conversation. Hye-kyeong answers questions slowly and deliberately, and her mother takes over when Hye-kyeong is tired or unable to respond. Hye-kyeong speaks intently about her determination to hold Samsung accountable for the working conditions that led to her illness, as well as her wishes to prevent similar problems from befalling other young workers within the electronics industry. When we ask Hye-kyeong about her hopes for the future, she begins to sob as she shares her dreams to one day fully recover from her illness.


I WAS JUST AN ORDINARY GIRL

Hye-kyeong: I’m at the hospital right now, in Seoul. But I am originally from the suburb of Chuncheon, the capital of Gangwon Province.

As a child, I was just an ordinary girl. I was healthy—I never had colds. My dream was to become a nurse, or an aerobics instructor, or a massage therapist. I enjoyed reading and listening to music—mostly ballads. I don’t have many memories of my elementary school years, but in middle school and high school I had a good friend, a great friend who was like my own sister. Still today, she and I, we really are like sisters. I always think about her without even seeing her, or when I’m not calling her. I know she lives in my heart. I’m really proud of her.

One memory I have of myself as a young girl is from after my graduation from high school. My friend married early, so she, her husband, and I went on a trip to a tiny town called Wontong in the northeast. It was around my birthday, so my friend made breakfast for me, to celebrate. She made so much food—and put it all on one small table—so much food I was afraid that the table would break! This is a very happy memory for me.

IN ONE SHIFT WE MADE 700 LAPTOP SCREENS

Hye-kyeong: I started working for Samsung before my high school graduation, in October 1995. I was eighteen. One day at school there was a job announcement posted from Samsung. It paid well and offered benefits, and Samsung was known as a good company. There were other companies posting offers but Samsung seemed to be the best. Since our class was graduating and looking for jobs, a number of companies sent notices to us. They knew we had to get jobs, but other than Samsung there weren’t a lot of good options.

Microphone photo by Alexis Fam
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I remember on my first day, I went to a training institute in Gangwon. Once there, we were shut up in a room for training and not allowed to even use the phone. It practically felt like a prison. Life at the training institute felt like total hell to me. We woke up early each morning and, if there was time, had a regular meal. We had to exercise each morning as well. We were taught about semiconductors and how they work, but also about living on our own and stuff like that. It lasted about a month.

The first day at the factory was astonishing. We wore a kind of dust-free apron, a mask, gloves, and special underwear to protect from radiation. Inside the facility it was like, “You go here, and you go there.” That was how the foremen talked to us, the line workers. So we went wherever they told us to go. I was told to go to the SMT, the surface-mount technology line. So I went and there were four large machines with several parts and one person was running around doing the work. My first thought was, So that’s what I’m working with.

We had to memorize the machine parts. The names of the parts were long, too, and there were several types. I would get confused after looking at them and trying to remember them later. At first I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but soon it seemed there was no need to memorize anything. I just started to learn it all after going back day after day. In the beginning I just ran around, clueless. But my co-worker told me to look over the machine parts, so I would stand in the middle of the machinery and inspect the exterior of the first one, then do the same with the second, and so on; it was mind-numbing. The machinery was so long that you had to run from one end of it to the other. There was a small opening between two of the machines that we called a dog hole, which we had to crawl in and out of. It was fun but tiring work, and time just flew by.

The product I made was a kind of circuit board called a PCB, or printed circuit board. I’d have to glue lots of tiny wires and electronics parts onto a green board using solder cream. The circuit boards I was gluing together would go into the backs of laptop computer screens. Daily output depended on the model. There must have been a quota, but we just kept working; we were never told a particular number we had to assemble. If we put together everything for one model, they’d change the model and we’d put a different one together. In one shift we made about seven hundred laptop screens.

On average we worked eight-hour shifts and usually did about four hours of overtime—so about twelve hours a day. You could work for six days, then have two days off. Or you could work for ten days doing nine-hour rotations and then get a day off. For bonuses, each individual employee was evaluated on a scale. I remember I got a fridge once. Everyone got one. At that time semiconductors were doing really, really well.

WE EVEN GOT TICKETS TO A THEME PARK

Hye-kyeong’s mother: At Samsung, Hye-kyeong earned enough money so she could support herself and our family. We had no house of our own before, but after Hye-kyeong worked at Samsung for three or four years, we were able to buy a little apartment. We lived together in the apartment in Chuncheon—myself, Hye-kyeong, and my three sons.

There were other benefits, too. I went to the Samsung Seoul Hospital in Gangnam and got an endoscopy. I got it for free by using a company coupon that Hye-kyeong gave me. I had blood tests done. At that time I just figured that since my daughter was working at a big company, this was just how they did things there. My friends were even a bit envious of me that I was now getting checkups through my daughter’s work.

Everland is a theme park southeast of Seoul and is owned by Samsung Group.

Before that, I’d never had any kind of physical exam, and so I just thought that since my daughter worked at a big company, she could help her mother to live more comfortably. We even got four free tickets to Everland, so Hye-kyeong, my son, my sister, and I went and rode the rides and ate lunch, all for free. At that point I just thought to myself, Wow, Samsung really is a great company.

Hye-kyeong: When we received health monitoring at Samsung, a bus would visit the factory from the hospital. Health personnel came to the factory to check our blood and urine and perform X-ray tests. They also tested our vision and hearing acuity. I had a health exam every year. After, I would get the results of the health monitoring, but I could not get an explanation of the results. The health personnel never told me that I was okay. They just said nothing.

LIKE THE SKY IS YELLOW

Hye-kyeong’s mother: In 2001, when Hye-kyeong was twenty-three, she was sick all the time. It seemed like she always had a cold. She was so sick that she actually stopped working that year. Then, she started to notice that her menstruation was not regular. My daughter felt very strange all the time. She always had pain in her shoulders. So, in 2004, I took her to a Chuncheon hospital to have her shoulder looked at. They took an X-ray, but nothing showed up. We had absolutely no idea why she felt sick, and no one could tell us anything.

Hye-kyeong went to every kind of doctor. She saw gynecologists about her irregular periods. She went to different doctors because of the pain in her shoulders, and because of the cold or other illness she’d had for a long time. My daughter has been seen by doctors in every field and specialization. Finally, in October 2005, we went to a hospital to take an MRI. That’s when we found out that Hye-kyeong had a brain tumor.

When I heard the news, I was flabbergasted, shocked. In Korean, we say, “It looks like the sky is yellow.” When the tests were over I stood crying at the sound of the words “brain tumor.” Hye-kyeong didn’t know how severe the disease was. She asked me, “Mom, what on earth is wrong with me?” I lied to her, saying, “You’ve got water on your spinal cord. You’ll be all right once we can get that water out, just hold on until then.” And the next day we went into surgery.

After the surgery, my daughter started chemotherapy. She had chemo treatments three or four times a week. She had radiation treatment forty-one times. In early February 2006, she began a rehabilitation program in Chuncheon. There was a person there who cared for Hye-kyeong, but I couldn’t be with my daughter at that time because I was working at the restaurant I owned. Later that year, I had to close that restaurant so that I could be with my daughter.

After her surgery, Hye-kyeong became seriously disabled in speaking, walking, and in her vision. Those disabilities were so serious she had to get more rehabilitation treatment. But in Korea you cannot stay more than three months at any one hospital and have insurance continue to cover the cost of the stay. So we just moved from hospital to hospital to get those rehabilitation treatments.

SHARPS (Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry) is a coalition of labor unions and human rights groups that seeks to protect the health and worker rights of semiconductor manufacturing workers.

Between 2006 and 2008, it was such a difficult time for us. We were traveling very far to each hospital. We had to go to faraway cities. We lived in Chuncheon but we had to go to Wonju City and other places to find a new hospital. Later, in the autumn of 2007, we had to sell our apartment to make money for Hye-kyeong’s treatments and our living expenses. Now we live with the support of SHARPS, but before we met SHARPS, we were just living on our savings.

THEY ARE ON THE SIDE OF THOSE WITH MONEY OR POWER

Hye-kyeong’s mother: When we moved back to Chuncheon and were at the province’s rehabilitation hospital, a social worker from that hospital told us about SHARPS and recommended we contact them because she knew Hye-kyeong used to work with Samsung. In this type of situation it’s important to get your story out there so I wrote some of it down and asked my son to post it online. In less than three hours I received a call from an attorney with SHARPS, Mr. Lee Jong-ran. And, in three or four days’ time, attorney Jong-ran Lee and another activist, Ms. Ae-jung Jung, came and found us at the Gangwon Rehabilitation Hospital.

In Korean, the acronym is KCOMWEL. KCOMWEL initially refused to acknowledge a possible link between circuit board manufacture at Samsung and cancer and thus refused to compensate cancer-stricken workers with occupational compensation unless clear, causal links could be established.

After we met SHARPS, we applied for the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service in March 2009. The whole process has been humiliating. KCOMWEL is supposed to be there to console the worker, to take care of them, or at least that is what I thought; but what I have felt from them is that the marble walls inside the building get better treatment than we do. One time, KCOMWEL told me to bring in writing whatever it was that I had to say, so I wrote it all down on a piece of paper. When I arrived, they wouldn’t give me an appointment to talk with anyone, so I stuck my paper up on the wall. A woman from KCOMWEL told me to take it down. I said to her, “My daughter can’t walk, and she can’t even stand up, and I can’t take down this paper.

Why do you want me to take it down?” Her response was that if I wouldn’t take it down then she would and that she’d stick it to my face. That is the kind of treatment we received there. KCOMWEL has become a business.

At first we expected KCOMWEL to consider our case an industrial accident, at the very least. This type of cancer doesn’t just appear overnight. There was no phone call or letter or anything from KCOMWEL. We learned our case had been denied from our attorney. Before that I went to KCOMWEL and spoke with one of the directors; I told him about Hye-kyeong’s case and begged him to approve our case. This all happened as I cried on the stairs of the lobby. All that and then we heard only from our attorney about the rejection, and my first thought was, Of course. That was my first thought, but I had never actually been put in a position to feel the kind of power a company like Samsung has. Since being rejected on the industrial accident application I’ve come to realize just what kind of power there is behind money. I can’t imagine how hard it must be on our attorney Lee Jong-ran every time he has to call and say that something hasn’t been approved.

KCOMWEL refused to compensate us, without giving any reason or making any investigation. They just denied our case. The facility where Hye-kyeong used to work doesn’t exist anymore, so frankly speaking, an investigation of her working conditions was not possible. I think something should be done, but the government denied our case. They just refused to compensate us. And I think it’s because the government, themselves, are under pressure from Samsung. They are so afraid of Samsung themselves that they don’t want to decide anything against them. When I heard the news, I felt like the government is not on the side of powerless workers, only on the side of those with money or power. We were so disappointed.

We went because, at some point, we realized that we had to fight this thing. It’s natural. If I tell people about it, then the fight will go on.

Hye-kyeong thinks there are still many workers who work as she did in similar facilities doing the same kind of work that Hye-kyeong was doing. KCOMWEL decided to investigate other facilities that were producing similar products to the ones produced in the facility where Hye-kyeong worked. But these other facilities were new—they were totally automatized. They were completely different from the facility where Hye-kyeong worked. So the investigation did not have anything to do with Hye-kyeong’s case.

Hye-kyeong: The first time we applied for compensation, I could not speak in public about my experience with Samsung. But later I began to speak in public when my mother and I made a protest visit to the workers’ compensation agency, to meet the chairperson about our demands. This was the spring of 2009.

We went because, at some point, we realized that we had to fight this thing. It’s natural. If I tell people about it, then the fight will go on. Even if it’s not people who actually worked at the factory, if I just tell anybody on the street about it they’ll see that Samsung is a bad company. I know since I worked there myself. I know when Samsung is lying or telling the truth.

When I began speaking about Samsung, frankly speaking, I felt like I wanted to hurt Lee Kun-hee, the chairperson of Samsung Electronics. If there are other victims like me—even just one more—then Lee Kun-hee must be punished. I feel it’s ridiculous they insist Samsung is such an excellent company; there is nothing good in that company. It’s a shame to call Samsung a good company.

IF YOU FIND A PROBLEM IN THE EARLY STAGES, YOU CAN CURE IT

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Hye-kyeong’s mother: We started rehabilitation again in the fall of 2010. We went to the rehabilitation hospital in Chuncheon for three months before she was discharged. Next she went to the welfare center as an outpatient, then to the National Rehabilitation Center in Seoul for a month for occupational therapy, and then home, and now here. We will stay until the hospital says, “Okay, time to go back home.” But this time the hospital is somewhat different from before. It’s a special hospital for workers, so we might be able to stay longer than three months. Hye-kyeong’s body seems to be getting better and so we’d like to stay here a bit longer. But she’s worried that they’ll ask her to leave soon.

Hye-kyeong’s doctor says that the risk of the cancer recurring is not big because there is no evidence of change, so recurrence may not come. But function in the cerebellum—that was the site of the cancer so the cerebellum was removed—cannot be recovered 100 percent. For the future, this means there are some limitations in living alone and doing things by herself. She cannot walk on her own at all, she needs assistance.

Hye-kyeong: I have something I want to tell the workers at Samsung. We cannot trust the regular health monitoring in Samsung, we cannot believe it. It is so superficial. So I want to suggest to other workers that they collect a small amount of money month by month and get independent health monitoring at least once a year because if you find a problem in its early stages, you can cure it. I want to tell this to other workers.

From my experience at Samsung, I want to tell the people that there are more important things than money, like health. Without health, we cannot live. And please be good to your parents—as good as you can be. And it’s the same for Samsung. The bosses and owners at Samsung must have their own sons and daughters, so I hope they look at the workers in this company and realize they are all sons and daughters themselves. Most of them are girls—very young girls. They employ young girls and make them use such bad chemicals, even knowing it is hazardous. Can they not change the toxicity of the harmful substances that Samsung employees have to use to something that isn’t harmful? If that could be changed it would make it so much better. They must take responsibility—at least, a part of the responsibility is on the company. They must not avoid it.

When I first started at Samsung, my dream, my hope, was just simple: I wanted to earn money and to learn about technology to buy a house for my family and support my younger brother in his education. I wanted to contribute to those things; I wanted to finish my work, then go back to my hometown and get a house where I hoped to live with my mother. That was my hope and my dream, but then I got this disease. In ten years, I want to walk again. I want to be normal again.

Hye-kyeong has continued to receive treatment for her disability while her family fights in courts to have KCOMWEL acknowledge the link between her illness and her former work with semiconductors. KCOMWEL has denied numerous other cancer-stricken workers’ compensation claims on the grounds that establishing a causal link between possible carcinogens and specific cases of cancer is impossible. A ruling on Hye-kyeong’s disability claims is scheduled in the spring of 2014.


This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Click here to access free Voice of Witness educational curricula on this story.

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