December 14, 2010 Elizabeth Grossman 4Comment

New Solutions: The Drawing Board is a monthly feature produced by the journal New Solutions. Read more about it here.

By Charles Levenstein and Dominick Tuminaro

[In press, International Union Rights journal, volume 17(4), due out 20 December; posted with permission]

There is an important intersection between the movements for international trade union rights and worker health and safety. Both recognize that core trade union rights are also human rights.

On April 2, 2010, Ji-Yeon Park, a 23 year old former worker at a Samsung factory in South Korea, was buried, the victim of a blood cancer. She is one of approximately 100 workers who represent a “cluster” of cancer cases at Samsung plants. Fellow workers and members of Supporters for Health And Rights of People in Semiconductor Industry (SHARP) were prevented by police from marching from the funeral to the Samsung plant, but re-convened outside company headquarters to picket with signs that memorialized her death. Seven demonstrators were arrested after a brief memorial.

After the leukaemia death of 23-year-old Samsung worker Park Ji-yeon on 31 March 2010, the company went on Twitter to offer an expression of mourning. (Photo used with permission of Hazards Magazine. Photo by Ted Smith.)

There are no unions at Samsung. “Recognize trade unions over my dead body!” said Lee Byungchul, the late founder of Samsung. One occupational physician, a faculty member at a medical school near Seoul, recently told us:

Samsung has established fake unions … in Samsung Affiliates. I know many workers have struggled to make an enterprise union, but their efforts failed. … they have been fired by Samsung. For example, Jong-tae Park, was a worker of Samsung electronics… (He) has been fired due to (his efforts) to address (the) necessity of trade union by that company 5 days ago.

Another worker health advocate told us:

There have been many efforts of workers to organize themselves. But, every attempt has been completely blocked by Samsung. It’s a kind of Hollywood B movie story; kidnapping, wire-tapping, blackmailing, and threatening. Maybe, dismissal is the most ‘tender’ way of theirs.

At Samsung, workers trying to exercise their most basic rights to organize and to protect themselves from hazardous conditions imposed by the company do not have the protection of the South Korean government. But when South Korea entered the United Nations in 1991, it took on all the obligations of member states, including the duty to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, South Korea states on the United Nations website:

In the area of economic, social, and cultural rights, the Government strives to enhance the quality of the lives of individuals by providing a wide range of opportunities to enjoy education, culture, health services, etc. It is also exerting every possible effort to guarantee labor rights, the right to a decent life and the right to health of the low-income or the vulnerable by securing the social safety net.

But the Republic of Korea has not ratified important conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), such as the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98). And, in the last ten years, complaints have been lodged with the ILO against the South Korean Government by unions representing hotel workers, teachers, “precarious” workers in the metal industry, other casual workers, and college professors. In reviewing one complaint, the ILO Freedom of Association Committee requested that the Government conduct an investigation of “…allegations of violence by private security guards against trade unionists during rallies at HMC Ulsan and Asan and Kiryung Electronics and, if they are confirmed, to take all necessary measures to punish those responsible and compensate the victims for any damages suffered.” The Committee warned the Government that “… violence, criminal sanctions or disproportionately heavy pecuniary penalties are not conducive to a constructive industrial relations climate, especially in the absence of affirmative measures to promote dialogue and collective bargaining.” In a case brought by the Metalworkers Union regarding the treatment of migrant workers, the ILO warned South Korea against jailing, beating and deporting union leaders and members.

The failure to protect worker rights to form unions has particularly dire consequences for the Samsung workers. They do not appear to have a Government-protected “right to know” about the hazardous substances with which they are working – and they have no union that can fight for that right.

The ILO is not the only international agency interested in worker health. The World Health Organization is also concerned with ensuring standards of worker health. Human rights instruments establishing state obligations in health are included in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Freedom of information is guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the rights to association and to life. As one human rights activist noted, “ILO Convention 187 and earlier conventions take a focus on [occupational safety and health]… Korea was among the first countries to ratify it, in 2008, and it entered into force in 2009.”

When asked, the activists at SHARP said that they are not at the present focusing on international human rights violations. As one of the key activists has said,

I must concentrate on the lawsuit against government’s decision not to compensate five leukemia/lymphoma victims in Samsung in one hand, and in other hand, must make this issue into broader agenda of National workers’ compensation insurance as a social welfare system. In my humble opinion, those two works are very important to organize victims and unions, and not to be isolated.

The lives and livelihood of young Korean workers are at stake here. To the extent that it is possible, the support of the international trade union movement would be helpful.

Charles Levenstein was recently in Seoul for a conference on health and human rights at the Seoul National University’s School of Public Health. He also met with representatives of SHARP, as well as two health care workers unions, a teachers union, a shoe-workers union, and Solidarity for Workers Health, a coalition of occupational health activists and trade unionists. Levenstein is Professor Emeritus of Work Environment at University of Massachusetts Lowell. Until recently he chaired the environmental health and safety committee for the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Dominick Tuminaro is a retired workers compensation attorney as well as adjunct professor at the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education and a former board member of NYCOSH.

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