Preface to Korean edition of “Challenging the chip”

By Mandy Hawes and Ted Smith

When “Challenging the Chip: Labor rights and environmental justice” was first published in 2006, we were unaware of the important struggles going on in Korea, recently brought to our attention through the inspired organizing efforts of SHARPS(Supporters for Health And Right of People in Semiconductor industry)   SHARPS has organized Samsung workers stricken with cancer and their families in a moving campaign for justice and accountability.  Samsung, the most dominant electronics company in Korea (known as “the Republic of Samsung” for the disproportionate power that it wields) has ignored the plight of its workers with cancer and denied all responsibility for their illnesses, which the workers and their supporters attribute to toxic exposure at work. 


The Samsung workers’ story is integral to what is, for us, an all-too-familiar, decades-long saga that includes similar actions and reactions around the world:


·       demands from workers and communities for the “right-to-know” about toxic chemical use, exposures and health information vs. corporate claims of “trade secrets” and “proprietary information” when people’s health is at stake,


·       claims by corporations that workers have “no proof” that toxic chemicals are harmful while at the same time these same companies refuse to do ongoing health monitoring or to participate in health studies;


·       intense anti-union bias from electronics employers vs. workers demands for decent working conditions, respect and corporate accountability for harm,


·       corporate ‘green-washing’ as companies use public relations to build and protect valuable market share in the huge consumer electronics market, regardless of environmental and health impacts of production on workers and communities.


·       government indifference or hostilities to those who bring these issues into the public arena because of their blind commitment to “economic development at any cost” and who are afraid that public visibility of the “collateral damage” caused by high-tech development will undermine their “economic miracle”.


SHARPS has undertaken the challenge of piecing together and showing how, once again, the image of a “clean industry” is at odds with the grim reality of chemically-intensive production and the “just-in-time” production demands that take such a huge toll on their workers lives.    And their story is compelling – they are truly writing the next chapter of “Challenging the Chip” through their work.


We were privileged to attend a meeting of SHARPS at the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) union office in August 2009 where we met some of the workers and their families and were very moved by their stories and the video presentation from SHARPS.  We were impressed to learn of other struggles by electronics workers at other factories in Korea who are raising and sometimes winning workplace victories and are organizing workers to join together and speak for themselves to improve their working conditions.  


When this book was first published in 2006, “Challenging the Chip” brought together for the first time the history and stories of people from around the world who are struggling to cope with the “dark side” of high-tech development, especially the occupational and environmental health consequences of electronics production.  The book tells the stories of many courageous and inspiration people from around the world:


·       Helen Clark, the Scottish semiconductor worker who devoted her short life organizing PHASE II to fight back against the conditions that caused her own cancer as well as the cancer in many other workers;


·       Lorraine Ross, the San Jose housewife (whose daughter was born with a severe heart defect) who blew the whistle on the electronics companies that contaminated her drinking water supply and organized her community to pass strict new laws to hold the companies accountable and to prevent future pollution;


·       Alida Hernandez, the brave electronics worker in San Jose who developed cancer on the job and who stood up to IBM to hold them accountable for their actions and in the process uncovered the largest high-tech cancer cluster in the world;


·       The 100’s of RCA workers in Taiwan who suffered severe health impacts and who organized with the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI) to demand justice from their employer; and


·       The toxic dumping of obsolete electronics (e-waste) from the United States in China as a dramatic example of a global system of production and disposal that is out of control and clearly unsustainable.


The book also documents organizing struggles that are beginning to inspire the dramatic changes that are necessary to bring about a truly sustainable future:


·       The Santa Clara Center on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH)  and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) whose early organizing efforts first brought about awareness and action to hold the industry accountable for worker and community harm suffered in it birthplace, Silicon Valley, California;


·       The Dell campaign where the Computer TakeBack Campaign brought enough public pressure on Dell Computer company to cause it to change its corporate policies;


·       Worker and community based organizing in Scotland, Mexico, Thailand, India, Taiwan and elsewhere that is challenging the industry to embrace more sustainable practices;


·       Efforts by unions to bring accountability and justice into the workplace in the face of hostile and anti-union management.


·       Growing global policy and green design initiatives that are sending ripple effects throughout the world and changing the nature of production and extending the life cycle requirements of the manufacturers through Extended Producer Responsibility.


This book originally grew out of a global symposium sponsored by the International Campaign for Responsible Technology (ICRT) in 2002 where more than 50 people from 15 countries came together to share experiences and common challenges. We realized that we had important stories to bring to the attention of workers, communities, policymakers, and the general public all around the world. Many of the communities and workers who have been the most affected by the harmful impacts of high-tech development have been at the forefront of creating solutions. Challenging the Chip brings these stories together to document the incredibly brave and important efforts of many people over the last three decades. In addition, the book provides some direction and hope for a more sustainable future for all of us.  We welcome this Korean edition as it adds a critical new chapter in this unfolding saga and look forward to working with you as we struggle to solve these problems over the coming years.


Mandy Hawesis a founder of the Santa Clara Center on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), a board member of Worksafe in California, and an attorney who represents electronics workers and their families who have suffered from work related diseases, such as cancer and birth defects.


Ted Smithis a founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, and the International Campaign for Responsible Technology.  He is also co-editor and co-author of “Challenging the Chip”.

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