Bad News from Korea: Young Samsung LCD-Factory Worker Suicide -- Second in Two Weeks

Kim Joo hyun's suicide is but the latest deeply disturbing news coming from Samsung's Korean manufacturing plants.
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In an email received yesterday, January 12 about 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time, Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, an occupational health physician in Korea who works on behalf of Korean semiconductor and other high-tech manufacturing industry workers through an organization called SHARPS (Supporters of Health and Rights of People in Semiconductor Industry) wrote to relay some grim news:

"Kim Joo hyun, 26-year-old male who used to work in Samsung electronics LCD factory in Chun-ahn city in Korea, jumped from the roof of the dormitory and killed himself in the early morning of January 11," wrote Dr. Kong.

"He entered the company at November 2009 as 'facility (maintenance) engineer' in FAB (fabrication department). But he was disappointed only after one month of his job; he must work 14~15 hours a day, suffer from serious skin problems in leg and feet owing to the 'bunny suit.' In October, he got diagnosis of depression and went [on] 'sick leave.'

11 January was the first day of his returning to work. He had to begin his work again at 8 a.m. of that day. He sent a short text message saying "I'm sorry" to his parents and sister at 5:59 am, and killed himself.

According to the company, the guards of the dormitory found him trying to jump from 13th floor, so they blocked it and took him back to his room at 6th floor. But those guys let him alone again, and he went back up to the 13th floor, and threw himself.

People say there was another worker who killed him/herself in the same factory.

Lee Jong Ran, the SHARPS activists visited the city and met his family yesterday. They decided to ask the responsibility of the company, and delay the funeral for a while. The press conference will be held tomorrow morning, and SHARPS will do our best to support the family."

Dr. Kong's report is confirmed by several articles in the Korean press. Separately, Dr. Kong, whose work was recognized with a 2010 American Public Health Association (APHA) Occupational Health & Safety section award noted that Kim Joo hyn "suffered from skin disease due to chemicals and depression because of severe job stress."

(The "bunny suit," she refers to is the head-to-toe coverall worn by semiconductor and other high-tech fabrication plant workers. It's designed to protect the microchips and other sensitive products from contamination by hair, dust or other detritus from workers rather than to protect workers from chemicals or other hazards.)

This tragedy is eerily reminiscent of last year's rash of suicides and attempted suicides by young workers, most in their twenties, at their Foxconn factory campuses in China. Foxconn manufactures high-tech electronics for international companies including Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Sony at enormous plants with as many as 400,000 workers. Numerous accounts describe extended overtime hours, suffering from severe stress, and living in these factory complexes, often far from their home towns and families. In October I spoke with women who'd worked in Chinese factories where they turned out as many as 300 to 400 cell phones per hour.

"How awful to see that Samsung may be following in the footsteps of Foxconn," said Ted Smith, coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology, that promotes corporate and government accountability in the global electronics industry.

This is but the latest deeply disturbing news coming from Samsung's Korean manufacturing plants. Dr. Kong and her colleagues at SHARPS have now documented about 100 cases of cancers, among them leukemia and lymphoma -- over two dozen of these fatal -- among workers at Samsung semiconductor and LCD plants in South Korea. Many of those stricken are also young. Other Samsung workers at these plants are known to be suffering from numerous health problems, including skin disorders, neuropathy, fertility problems including miscarriages, and chronic nosebleeds. After public pressure from SHARPS, in July 2010 Samsung announced an investigation of these illnesses -- a study that is now underway.

This morning Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that another Samsung worker, who also worked at an LCD (liquid crystal display) plant committed suicide on January 3rd, also jumping from a dormitory. "Samsung regrets the incidents, Nam Ki Yung, a spokesman for the Suwon, South Korea-based company said. The company will consider expanding regular health checkups and psychiatric consulting for employees, Samsung said on its official blog. Samsung is the world's largest maker of LCDs," writes Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

"This is too high a price to pay for our addiction to high tech gadgets and we have to find a better way to make these products," Smith noted in comments posted on Facebook yesterday evening.

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