Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. June 8 launched an Ombudsman Committee on Leukemia of Samsung, (Ombudsman), an external monitoring structure agreed to by SHARPS in January 2016.

Three Years

The ombudsman currently seats labor law professor of Seoul National University Lee Cheol-soo, and two medical professors.  Earlier, the nomination of Prof. Lee as chair was approved by Samsung and SHARPS. The committee will hire outside expertise to examine semiconductor lines over the course of three years.

The ombudsman will release a report based on that analysis.  Setting apart from the conventional concept of “ombudsman,” the non-permanent committee is merely an investigative body, and Samsung is not required to act on the committee’s findings.

Not an End

Following the announcement of the ombudsman by Samsung, all major newspapers reiterated what amounted to Samsung’s official position—with the ombudsman, the world’s largest technology company put an end to the leukemia crisis that has hounded it in the past nine years.

“In effect, the ombudsman will solve only one-third of the crisis,” said Citizens’ League for a Democratic Press, a Seoul-based media watchdog, in a daily commentary criticizing these news reports.  “This is because Samsung still is at odds with the victims and their families over how it makes reparations and official apologies.”

“The substantial issue lies with the fact that Samsung did not comply with an arbitration process and began in July last year to unilaterally pay some victims compensation,” the non-profit watchdog added.

SHARPS’s Sit-in Continues

Since Oct. 7, 2015, SHARPS and its supporters have been staging a sit-in at Samsung D’light, the company’s so-called global exhibition space in south Seoul, calling for the world’s largest technology company to:

1) institute a permanent, independently verifiable safety program;

2) compensate all victims of occupational disease transparently and sufficiently; and

3) make a sincere and full apology.

The following an excerpt of the press statement released by SHARPS on June 9, 2016 on the ombudsman:

“The Ombudsman Committee Should Focus on Independence, Impartiality and Public Accountability. Samsung Must Comply Thoroughly With The Agreement.

On June 8, Samsung Electronics announced the formation of an Ombudsman Committee (Ombudsman). It said it has named law prof. Lee Chol-soo of Seoul National University to chair the committee and appointed two other members, Lim Hyun-sul, public health professor at Dongguk University, and Kim Hyunwook, environmental engineering professor at Catholic University. The committee would form five subcommittees with a total of ten experts.

We, SHARPS, have been calling for transparency for the safety and health management of Samsung since 2007 and have been expecting the committee to form for about five months since Jan. 12, 2015 when SHARPS, Samsung and the Family Settlement Committee agreed to preventive measures on industrial accidents and an Ombudsman. It was a long time in coming, but we expect solid activity. Especially, we hope the Ombudsman respects the agreement framework of preventive measures and act on them earnestly.

The goal of the agreement framework is to build an internal system for a sound and healthy work environment as stipulated in Clause 1 of the framework. “An independent, publicly accountable outside body tasked with detecting improvement points in work culture and devising a variety of ways to address improvement” is the Ombudsman Committee. In sum, the committee is responsible for exercising leadership in building a safe work environment to protect workers’ wellness at Samsung to

In this respect, it is important for the Ombudsman to be independent of Samsung. One mistake or one issue can render all our efforts futile. In forming the Industrial Health Examination Committee at SK Hynix, Prof. Jang Jae-yeon, of Ajou University, declared that the committee must ensure transparency and impartiality to earn trust. He said he has populated the committee with those who can be trusted among workers and who are too antagonistic for the company to approve. SK Hynix promised it would ensure full independence for the committee, and the majority of the committee members would not tolerate any interference by the company. This way, he strongly expressed his wiliness for independence. Samsung’s Ombudsman should win thorough independence.

In addition, impartiality is one matter and prevention of intervention or pressure from company is another. In the announcement, committee chair Lee put emphasis on impartiality, expertise, and fairness to highlight the importance scientific diagnosis and objective assessment. However, the Ombudsman’s dependence on information provided by Samsung would likely limit its objectivity and impartiality. To substantially reduce the dispute over impartiality, the committee should collect and reflect a variety of experience, data, and opinions from those who are in opposition to Samsung. Whether the Ombudsman stays unaffected by Samsung’s influence and pressure will depend on how sincerely it will collect and ruminate the shop floor experience of workers and the serious opinions of outside experts and civil-society organizations.

The Ombudsman, as defined in the agreement framework as an independent, publicly accountable outside body, should focus on the importance of public accountability. Independence and impartiality are its operational principles while public accountability constitutes the raison d’etre for the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is not a body limited to seeking answers for such basic questions as “Is there any evidence that Samsung uses carcinogens?” or “Should leukemia be an occupational disease?” It is the body to improve public healthcare at Samsung in order to achieve such public value as workers’ rights to health and life. The committee should not only prevent the repeat of the occupational disease cluster, which pained so many workers and their families, but also improve Samsung’s poor corporate culture and the safety of the supply line, which flouted the basics of chemical management and resulted in the fatal gas leak in 2013 and the methanol poisoning in 2016. We hope the Ombudsman achieves public accountability by improving Samsung’s inward culture that insists on high confidentiality on the life and health of the people working at its plants.

Since 2007, we have been taking issue with Samsung’s occupational disease cluster and could finally win the agreement framework centering on the Ombudsman. We will seek to play our own role in keeping the committee independent and impartial to completely achieve public accountability.

In addition to the agreement framework, Samsung’s offering of a sincere apology and reparations for the victims are the other issues that have been stalled for ten months since August 2015 when Samsung unilaterally put negotiations on hold. SHARPS’s sit-in, which has since been initiated, now lasts more than 250 days. Addressing the issues of reparation and apology through dialogue with SHARPS is the solution to the past issues of public safety. Samsung should turn into a socially responsible corporation by responding in good faith to these two remaining issues.

The Ombudsman also should put more efforts into ensuring transparency and bettering communicating with society to disseminate its own findings unfiltered by Samsung.”