Inside Asia’s toxic electronics industry

Samsung workers and their families campaigning for justice. Photo courtesy Industriall.
Share with your friends


Hwang Yu-mi was just 21 when she died from a rare form of acute leukaemia. Four years earlier she had begun working at one of Samsung’s semiconductor plants in South Korea. Yi Yeting has leukaemia too. He worked at a factory in China run by Foxconn, the largest electronics manufacturing company in the world. Yeting, who taught himself labour law to take on his former employer, is now an organiser with Labor Action China. As a workers’ rights activist, he supports other workers poisoned at work like him.

Killer chemicals. What made Yu-mi and Yeting ill was the toxic chemicals they used at work. Benzene is used widely in electronics manufacturing. It is well recognised as an occupational carcinogen and can cause leukaemia, lymphoma, brain cancer, cerebral oedema and kidney disorders. The chemical n-hexane, which is used to clean touch screens, can cause nerve damage and paralysis.

These hazardous chemicals are frequently used in innocuous sounding “clean rooms,” enclosed environments engineered to keep high tech components free from dust. The air recirculates, making them clean for the technology but dangerous for workers!

The electronics industry is huge and fiercely competitive. China, which surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest trader of goods in 2013, became the biggest electronics producer in 2015. It now churns out half of all the world’s mobile phones.

Chinese migrant workers. The majority of the workforce in the industry are young women, such as Xiao Ya, who worked on a smartphone production line in Guangzhou. She spent 15 hours a day in a poorly ventilated space polishing phone screens. Ya was poisoned by the n-hexane she used for this task. She and her sick co-workers who suffered headaches, dizziness, weakness and pains in their limbs didn’t know about the dangers of the chemicals they were using until they were hospitalised.

Shang Jiaojiao, who like Xiao Ya was poisoned by n-hexane, recalls that even when she found herself in hospital and unable to walk, she didn’t want to tell her mother. Like 12 million Chinese teenagers who leave home every year to find work in the cities, she does not want to be a burden on her family.

Their stories, some of which are documented in the film Complicit, are far from unusual. Made by Heather White and Lynn Zhang, the documentary gives a voice to electronics factory workers in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. In China, over 200 million people are working in hazardous environments. According to government statistics, one person will be poisoned by a toxic chemical every five hours, the majority from Benzene. Experts assert that the actual number is higher.

Hundreds of millions of young workers arrive in China’s cities every year, only to pay with their health as a consequence of working in places that have inadequate safety standards.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is meant to represent 280 million workers, does anything but! It defers to the government, which is itself subservient to the needs of the capitalist market economy. While China’s working class is fighting hard, they can’t rely on union officials who are frequently selected by the same bosses that workers are fighting. Most strikes are organised outside the official channels of the Federation, making it challenging to share the lessons across workplaces.

In late 2022 thousands of workers protested poor pay and unsafe conditions at the Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou. There was a surge of strikes in 2003. In September workers at the Zhongshan Eurotec Electronics factory in China’s Guangdong province went on strike over pay and 20 other demands, including safety. According to China Labour Bulletin, strikes and protests increased sharply last year, with the largest number in electronics factories. More than 65 workplace actions broke out in the first half of the year.

Fighting back against Samsung. Workers in South Korea have also fought tenaciously. Hwang Sang-ki was enraged by the callous treatment his daughter, Yu-mi, got from her employer. She had no success applying for compensation from Samsung to help with her medical expenses. And after Yu-mi’s death, Samsung told Sang-ki he he would receive no compensation. He simply refused to accept that!

Yu-mi had been amongst dozens of workers who fell ill after working at Samsung plants. Sang-ki was determined to prove that his daughter died from a workplace-related illness, which meant taking on the world’s biggest technology company. He found others passionate about the issue, teaming up with union activist and lawyer Lee Jong-ran to co-found Banolim, which translates as Supporters for Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS). The organisation was tenacious in building an effective fighting network. It organised protests, conducted research, publicised the issues and helped other families pursue compensation. Over a decade, SHARPS documented 320 cases of work-related diseases reported by Samsung’s semiconductor workers and 118 deaths.

In 2014 Hwang Sang-ki’s battle was documented in the popular feature film, Another Promise, in which a father struggles against a fictional electronics company, Jinsung. The film was produced entirely through crowd funding.

Feeling the pressure, Samsung promised to provide compensation. At the same time, the company refused to acknowledge any claims linking sick workers to its semiconductor production processes. When negotiations broke down between SHARPS and Samsung, worker advocates launched a sit-in at company headquarters. It lasted almost three years! On the thousandth day, a thousand protestors encircled the company to a fanfare of publicity. The next month Samsung re-opened compensation discussions and agreed to enter into binding mediation, which resulted in an agreement with SHARPS. Samsung’s CEO conceded that Samsung had not properly protected its workers against health risks. Compensation began to flow to workers, including contractors, for illness and also miscarriages.

Capital roaming the globe. With workers winning improved accountability in South Korea, Samsung looked elsewhere. When Vietnam became a full member of the World Trade Organisation in 2007, this opened a wave of foreign investment. Samsung, which dominates the global phone market, now produces half of its phones there. Sangsoo Lee from SHARPS explains: “Samsung Electronics’ relocation to Vietnam is not only to lower wages, but also to reduce environmental safety and health costs. The toxicity of the electronics industry, which had been transferred from the United States to South Korea, has now been outsourced to Southeast Asia in a more dangerous form.”

Despite Samsung being notoriously secretive, word is getting out. Last year a former manager of environmental safety at Samsung Vietnam blew the whistle on widespread use of toxic chemicals, the first time information about toxic chemicals used in Samsung’s Vietnam factories has been disclosed publicly.

In 2017, the Hanoi-based Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development released a study about the experiences of women working at two Samsung factories in Vietnam. Despite attempts by the company to suppress the report, the stories of the 45 women became public. These workers experienced extreme fatigue and fainting or feeling dizzy at work. They also described problems with eyesight, nose bleeds, aches in the stomach, bones, joints and leg problems. Workers in the industry are predominantly young women, and they report that miscarriages are so common that they are even expected.

In 2021, the International Labour Organisation produced a global review of the exposure to hazardous chemicals in the workplace and the resulting health impacts. This report included the shocking statistic that one worker dies every thirty seconds due to occupational chemical exposure! When it comes to the life cycle of an electronic device, there are toxic hazards for workers at all stages — it starts with mining and ends with e-waste.

It needn’t be like this. Electronic devices can be produced without using most of the toxic chemicals currently used in the production process. It just costs companies more to do so. And in the cut-throat world of global capitalism, reducing cost trumps worker safety.

Workers need to be empowered in their workplaces. Democratic trade unions that are run by workers on the shop floor and that are free from restrictive anti-union laws are essential to ensure that workplaces are safe.

Without a doubt, many of the products produced by the electronics industry are popular and make our lives easier — 80% of the world’s population now has a mobile phone. But capitalism, a system built on the drive for profits, bolsters market share by deliberately —and unnecessarily — designing in obsolescence. Products are engineered to prevent compatibility with competitors’ products and newer technologies, with inbuilt flaws that cause them to break and sealed units to prevent easy repair. Software engineers are expert at this. Software is not “backward compatible,” meaning that perfectly serviceable devices must be tossed in the garbage, because they will not work with newer versions. This keeps consumers buying new models which might be essential for constant growth, but is wasteful of resources and environmentally unsustainable

The average time an individual can rely on a smartphone to do what it should is between two to three years, because by this time the device its no longer compatible with software. In 2018 Apple and Samsung were fined millions of Euros in Italy after findings that software updates were deliberately designed to degrade the performance of older phones. Separately, Apple faces a possible fine of €39 billion from the European Commission, because its Apple Pay software is not compatible with those of other manufacturers.

Yet it is perfectly possible to design and produce electronic devices that are compatible with each other, because many of the components are common to all. They can also be made to last and be repairable. This would also be good for the environment by eliminating 50 million tons of e-waste every year. But to do this requires a system with different priorities — a system where workers, like Yi Yeting, Xiao Ya and Shang Jiaojiao, are making the decisions and do not face daily poisoning in the interests of increasing profit and decreasing sustainability!

Share with your friends