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2015-10-25 17:07
By Kim Yoo-chul

Preliminary United Nations observations about the effects of hazardous substances on the health of workers in manufacturing facilities, specifically those at Samsung Electronics semiconductor and display lines, have raised heated debate in Korea because the findings do not support Samsung Electronics’ efforts to address the issue.

In a statement at the end of a two-week trip to Korea at the invitation by the government, Baskut Tuncak, the (UN) Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, said “occupational diseases” were an increasing problem in Korea.

“The amount of information and protection available to workers is a challenge, particularly for sub-contractors,” Tuncak said. “Yet despite what appear to be massive information gaps, victims bear the burden of proving that their suffering is a result of hazardous substances in the workplace.”

Tuncak said workers at Samsung plants had developed various diseases partly because of the hazardous substances Samsung was using and because of inadequate safety measures to prevent exposure.

“The preliminary findings by the UN on the Samsung issue may raise serious problems because there’s no common proof and related evidence that the births of deformed children are due to working at semiconductor lines,” said Kim Soo-geun, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University, who is an expert on occupational diseases issues.

“If hazardous substances pose threats to workers’ health, then Tuncak should have provided evidence of the amount of hazardous substances to which workers have been exposed,” the professor said.

The UN rapporteur said the inability to prove causation between the health impacts on people and the hazardous substances to which they have been exposed presented an insurmountable obstacle to most victims.

But Kim said there was so far little evidence that chemical products used in manufacturing facilities had a direct impact on workers’ health.

“Some hazardous substances were being used in other industries and other countries,” Kim said. “However, as the amount of such substances is very low, there’s no evidence that workers’ health problems are entirely due to their work on semiconductor lines.”

Tuncak said the purpose of the mission was to monitor and assess government steps to protect human rights implicated in the management of hazardous substances and waste throughout people’s lives.

The UN official mentioned organizations and residents and victims who shared aspirations for human rights, but his statement was based on details from people whom he interviewed.

He used the words “claim,” “heard,” “victim,” and “prominent,” without putting views from other sides.

Also, there is still debate among experts and industries about whether or not the ability to prove causation will be beneficial to workers.

For example, German and Sweden failed to pass a law on the health effects on workers because such a law might twist the purpose of the Occupational National Insurance system, causing an increased financial burden and more unsubstantiated claims.

In Korea, the government acceptance rate for occupational diseases, especially cancer, rose to 48.9 percent between 2010 and 2012, with 266 cases out of 544 approved for compensation.

This was a major increase from an average approval rate of 13.1 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to the health ministry.

Tuncak said a full report of the mission would be prepared and submitted to the Human Rights Council next September.


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