In Samsung's War at Home, an Apology to Cancer-Stricken Workers

Samsung Vice Chairman Kwon Oh-hyun speaks during a briefing in Seoul on May 14
Photograph by Samsung Electronics via AP Photo

In an abrupt about-face, Samsung Electronics today issued a public apology to workers who contracted rare cancers linked to chemicals at its semiconductor plants and to the surviving family members it sometimes battled in South Korea’s courts during a struggle that has stretched for seven years. The company also said it is committed to compensating workers and their families. We highlighted this struggle, and Samsung’s treatment of the workers’ families, in a feature I wrote for the magazine’s April 14 issue, “Samsung’s War at Home.”

Kwon Oh Hyun, vice chairman of Samsung, which is the world’s top producer of memory chips and smartphones, specifically apologized to the families for the way the controversy has dragged on. “We feel regret that a solution for this delicate matter has not been found in a timely manner, and we would like to use this opportunity to express our sincerest apology to the affected people,” Kwon said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. The news agency said he was shown on South Korean television reading the statement to reporters this morning.

The company’s statement fell shy of accepting a connection between some of the diseases, including leukemia, and carcinogens used in its plants, a link Samsung has always denied. In a handful of cases, however, the South Korean courts and the government’s worker-compensation board have formally connected cancers or precancerous blood conditions to semiconductor work for Samsung, especially at its oldest and once-biggest production facility. The workers we highlighted stood on the lines of that plant.

Jungah Lee, the Samsung beat reporter for Bloomberg News in Seoul, also quoted Kwon as saying, “We will make appropriate compensation to those who were
affected and their families.” The details of how that compensation will work remain to be seen, and I imagine there’s probably skepticism among some of the family members I spent time with in Korea earlier this year. They have heard a similar pledge from the company at least once before.

But today’s statement is definitely different. The apology alone is a big step forward. And it was quite extraordinary for me personally to see a senior executive from Samsung—a company that prides itself on always striving for perfection—talk this way about the controversy, given my study of Samsung’s conduct throughout the struggle and my own experiences with the company’s executives just last month.

Before publication of our story, Samsung sent a senior executive and two other executives to London to visit me at our offices here. I was candid with them about everything in the piece—details of which I questioned them about in writing and in person. What they told me in London was off the record, but it’s both fair and accurate to say I felt a disconnect between the well-established record of the company’s treatment of the families in these cases and its public and private statements about always putting employees first.

That’s what will make Kwon’s apology today resonate across South Korea, where Samsung’s revenue equals roughly one-quarter of the nation’s GDP. It is really the first inkling of remorse from the nation’s most powerful corporation.

The timing also seems right in another respect: In the wake of the horrible ferry disaster near Jindo, the New York Times and others declared that South Koreans were worrying about the nation’s tendency to “overlook safety precautions in its quest for economic success.” We raised the same question in our piece, noting before the ferry deaths that the debate about the balance between people and profits is now part of the mainstream cultural conversation because of two movies this year about the Samsung families’ struggles. Today, Samsung joined the conversation.

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