On November 23, 2018, in the international hall of the Korea Press Center, Kim Ki-nam, then president (and now vice chairman) of Samsung Electronics, read from a prepared statement of apology. He directed his comments to those who’d fallen ill or died from their work in the company’s semiconductor and LCD plants, and the families that survived them. Chairman Kim bowed at a ninety-degree angle to the victims in attendance. They responded with tears, deep exhalations, and lingering rage. The parties shook hands, then submitted to a commemorative photograph to mark the giving and receiving of apology. A flood of news stories reported that the dispute had finally been resolved.
But is this “resolution” real?
Eleven years: the time it took for factory workers and their families to extract an apology from Samsung Electronics. The fight to unmask the company’s misconduct—its intentional, systematic disregard of worker health and safety in its semiconductor and LCD plants—began with the death of a semiconductor worker from acute leukemia. On March 6, 2007, Hwang Yumi, just 23 years old, died in her father’s taxi on the way to the hospital. Her father, Hwang Sang-ki, pledged to hold the company accountable for its neglect and lies. The campaign grew at a slow but assured pace. Other victims made themselves known, and in this way, one person’s struggle became universal. For eleven years, ailing factory workers and family members of the deceased faced the most powerful of adversaries. Samsung employed its industrial might to minimize and obscure its wrongs; Korea’s workers’ compensation and welfare agency, which ostensibly protects and supports employees, repeatedly rejected the victims’ applications for redress; and the courts dismissed the victims’ lawsuits. Most major Korean news outlets ignored the story, for fear of losing advertising dollars. And members of the public criticized the factory workers for daring to undermine the Korean economy, and accused them of being agents of a shadowy, treacherous organization. Worst of all, all of the efforts to close a settlement agreement since 2013 collapsed in less than two years, and fissures emerged among the community of victims. Those who remained in the fight, however, pressed on. In time, their voices were amplified, and public sympathy and solidarity grew—to the point that Samsung was forced to respond with an apology and compensation.
I began “Another Family” in 2013, as a photographic record of the workers’ suffering and death, courage and struggle, dignity and fortitude. My goal, from the start, was simple and clear: to visually document their experiences without bias, without imposing a certain “frame,” and to share their stories with as many people as possible to help bring about change. An acquaintance offered a piece of advice. “Why would you ruin your career by doing this kind of work? It’s like throwing eggs at a rock—you’ll only destroy the eggs, and nothing will happen to the rock. I mean, if your goal is just to coat a rock in yolk, be my guest.” I had no rebuttal; “throwing eggs at a rock” was right. But what if it wasn’t one egg, or two or three or a few dozen, but hundreds or thousands of eggs? A rock thus encrusted would attract attention. People would ask what, exactly, was going on. My project might be understood as doing the work of one of those many eggs; I can’t be sure. But I am heartened by the fact that the world now knows what has transpired
Back to November 23, 2018. As the ceremony marking an apology and settlement winds down, representatives of Samsung and the victims gather for a group photo. On the official schedule, this is called a “commemorative photograph,” but the legal agreement is already in place. The actual purpose the photo is evidentiary: it announces to the world that both sides have signed, and shaken hands on, an agreement. A true commemoration, by contrast, demands that we remember the victims’ pain, their deaths, their courage and will to stand up to power; that workers’ rights and safety are guaranteed, while businesses that flout the law are duly punished; and that corporate monitoring be systematically embedded in Korean society. Only then would such a photograph be “commemorative”—a celebration of social progress and a catalyst for citizen awareness and action.
As soon as a problem is “resolved,” we lose our ability to reflect. We seem to forget everything: what the problem was, its genesis and climax, the sacrifices that were involved, and how it was all addressed. This erasure leads to a tragic repetition and diminished reasoning and sympathy; promised reforms never occur. It’s in the interest of perpetrators to accelerate this erasure, and the more powerful they are, the greater the risk of oblivion. The story that unfolded over eleven years, of Samsung semiconductor and LCD factory workers and their families, must continue to be discussed and remembered. This responsibility lies with each of us—for, “To cause awareness is our only strength.”*
According to “Banolim”, also known as “SHARPS”(Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry), 559 employees were diagnosed with incurable conditions, including leukemia, brain tumors, breast cancer, and multiple sclerosis, as of May 2019, and 174 of them are now deceased. Samsung Electronics has agreed to compensate victims in the amount of 50 billion Korean Won, or approximately $43 million. This represents 0.09 per cent of Samsung Electronics’ profits in 2017—the equivalent of eight hours of company earnings. It is an unsatisfying figure, but one large enough to peel the scales from our eyes.
* W. Eugene Smith, “Minamata,” 1975.