In August 2019, the amendment bill to the Industrial Technology Protection Act was passed by the National Assembly. It is also called the ‘Samsung Protection Act’ because it prohibits the disclosure of safety and health information that is harmful to the human body if it is related to the national core technology. Recently, the National Core Strategic Industry Act, which is feared to further strengthen corporate information hiding, passed the relevant standing committee. The Industrial Technology Protection Act Task Force, made up of 12 labor, safety and health, and civic groups, sent a letter requesting the revision of the Industrial Technology Protection Act and the suspension of the enactment of the Strategic Industry Act.
Through the ‘Seoul National University Industry-University Foundation Report’ prepared in 2009, we learned that the first class carcinogens were detected in the chemical products used in Samsung’s semiconductor factories. Through the 2012 Occupational Safety and Health Research Institute report, we learned that domestic semiconductor manufacturing plants can be exposed to carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. Through this, we learned that there is a very serious problem in the overall chemical management of Samsung’s semiconductor plant.
It was a time when many reports of occupational diseases had already been reported at the factory. The workers tried to inform the world of the dangers of the factories by revealing health problems suspected of being occupational diseases, but the company and the government did not listen to them. However, as these data came to light, the factory’s working environment problems could no longer be ignored. The courts and the Korea Labor Welfare Corporation have begun to recognize the health problems of semiconductor workers as ‘industrial accidents’. Starting with the late Yumi Hwang’s death from leukemia, which was recognized as an industrial accident, about 80 workers who worked in semiconductor and LCD factories were recognized for industrial accident damage due to more than 20 diseases. In addition, public institutions and private researchers have begun to look more deeply into the problems of the working environment in semiconductor factories. A group epidemiological investigation of semiconductor workers was also conducted.
Through such processes, more cases of occupational diseases and more work environment problems were made known to the world. The problem of ‘semiconductor occupational disease’, which started with the tragic death of the late Yumi Hwang in 2007, seemed to be getting better little by little.
But in August 2019, the National Assembly enacted a surprising law. The Act on the Prevention and Protection of Industrial Technology (Industrial Technology Protection Act) was amended so that data on the working environment of semiconductor factories could no longer be disclosed. All data was concealed on the grounds that it was ‘information on national core technology’ (Article 9-2 of the Industrial Technology Protection Act). Even the act of notifying the factory’s working environment problems for the public interest was subject to heavy criminal punishment and punitive damages. Preliminary measures were made possible by intelligence agencies just because they were concerned about such an act (Articles 14, 8, 15, 22-2, and 36, Paragraph 4 of the Industrial Technology Protection Act).
And in December 2021, the National Assembly pushed for the enactment of another ‘Semiconductor Special Act’ (the Act on Special Measures for Strengthening and Protecting the Competitiveness of National Core Strategic Industries). The ‘national core strategic technology’ system that this law intends to introduce embraces all the poisonous provisions made in the Industrial Technology Protection Act (Article 11, Paragraph 7 of the Special Act). It is a law that can broaden the scope of data that can be concealed and impose heavier penalties on the disclosure of data for the purpose of public interest. It has already passed the Standing Committee and is pending in the Legislative and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly. As the large ruling party has adopted it as a party argument and is pushing it, it is predicted that it will not be difficult to pass the plenary session if it passes the Judiciary Committee.
Slowly, little by little, but clearly the world was moving in the right direction, it seems that the world is going backwards fast. If even the ‘Semiconductor Special Act’ is passed without changing the Industrial Technology Protection Act, domestic semiconductor companies will have powerful means to easily cover up the problems of the working environment in their factories. For example, data such as the 2009 Seoul National University Industry-Academic Cooperation Report, which discovered a first-class carcinogen in a Samsung semiconductor plant, will no longer be known to the world.
A larger, thicker veil is created that covers the entire semiconductor factory. In doing so, more workers may suffer more serious disease damage. Issues that threaten the lives of residents living near the factory can also be hidden.
March of this year marks the 15th anniversary of the late Yumi Hwang, who first announced the problem of semiconductor occupational disease to the world. If Yumi in the sky asks how much has changed in the meantime, what should we answer? It has been clear that your death was an ‘industrial accident’, and it has been confirmed that all the diseases that ruined the lives of your colleagues were also ‘occupational diseases’ created by the problem of the working environment at the semiconductor factory, but we I may have to say that I no longer know. Also, I have to make one thing clear. To our politicians who shout ‘Shut up and support’ for the semiconductor industry, the health and human rights of semiconductor workers are still not of interest. That angry reality has not changed at all even after 15 years.