Movie tackles South Korean giant Samsung over worker illnesses
Crowd-financed movie takes on global giant over cancer cases at semiconductor plants as pressure mounts for compensation for victims
When his daughter Yu-mi won a job at the electronics company Samsung, Hwang Sang-ki was bursting with pride. Yu-mi would bring in enough money to support her struggling family and, she was hoping, it would pay her younger brother's way through university.
But in 2007, five years after she began work at the semiconductor plant of the South Korean consumer electronics firm, Yu-mi, 23, died, on the back seat of her father's taxi as he rushed her to hospital.
She had been diagnosed with a rare acute leukaemia 20 months earlier, a disease her father insisted was due to her exposure to chemicals at the Samsung plant in the city of Suwon.
Hwang's quest to prove his daughter died from a workplace-related illness has pitted him against the world's biggest technology company and timid South Korean media.
"I didn't believe Samsung when they told me Yu-mi's illness could not have been caused by her daily contact with those chemicals," said Hwang, whose suspicions were aroused when he learned that a colleague of his daughter had died from the same illness. "I talked to experts and took my findings to newspapers, TV companies and magazines, but they all said the same thing, 'you can't possibly win a fight with Samsung'."
But yesterday the silence surrounding the case of Yu-mi, and dozens of others who claim they fell ill after working at Samsung plants, was pierced by the nationwide release of a fictional film inspired by Hwang's decade-long search for the truth.
The film, Another Promise, is the first in South Korea to come entirely from private donations and crowd funding.
Watch: Film trailer for 'Another Promise'
About 7,000 people donated a quarter of the film's total budget in exchange for cinema tickets or DVDs, while the rest of the funds came from other private investments and the filmmakers themselves.
To avoid possible legal action the producers altered its original title from Another Family - a well-known Samsung advertising slogan - while the on-screen electronics company is called Jinsung.
The director, Kim Tae-yun, said he was inspired to make the film after reading a newspaper article about Yu-mi's case.
"Friends told me not to do it, that it would be dangerous for my career," he said. "But I'm not the one doing the fighting here, the families are. I don't care if I'm tackling controversial or sensitive subjects, because there shouldn't be any taboo subjects for film-makers."
Yu-mi and her colleague were not alone. About 200 workers have made similar allegations against Samsung and other chipmakers, according to Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (Sharps).
Of the three dozen Samsung workers who filed for compensation through the workers' welfare service last year, only two were successful, according to Lee Jong-ran, a lawyer who represents technology workers who have fallen ill.
Most of the semiconductor industry workers who turned to Sharps were in their 20s and 30s when they fell ill. More than 50 have since died.
"When you have that number of cases it is clear that the cases of Yu-mi and the other workers were not coincidences," Lee said.
The families' campaign got a boost in 2011 when the Seoul administrative court said toxic chemicals at Samsung plants "had caused, or at least expedited" cases of cancer in two workers, including Yu-mi.
Earlier, the Korean Workers' Compensation and Welfare Service, a government agency that compensates workers and levies companies to fund the payouts, said there was no proven link. The body has appealed against the ruling.
"Protecting the health and safety of our employees is, and has always been, our top priority," Samsung said in a statement. "As such, we are deeply saddened by the loss of former members of the Samsung family and are concerned about those who are battling illness."
Samsung said that independent research, including a three-year review by the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency, and a study by the United States consulting firm Environ International, had found no correlation between the workplace environment and employee illness.