When a 29-year-old worker was dispatched to a factory through a recruitment agency early last year, he never imagined the job would lead to sight loss.
After completing his mandatory military service, the worker, who only wanted to be identified by his surname Kim, badly needed a job. Instead of going back to university, he started to work at a third-tier mobile parts supplier for Samsung Electronics.
“I had no idea how dangerous a job it would be. I was told that I would have to handle alcohol. There was no training on safety at all,” he told The Korea Herald. “On my first day at work, a manager there showed me how to work with machines for a few minutes and I got on with my job right away.”
Without protective gear, he worked for 12 hours in conditions where he was exposed to methanol without sufficient ventilation alongside 30 other workers. He chose to work the night shift to receive extra pay, which earned him about 2 million won ($1,780) a month.
Three weeks after he began to work for supplier Deokyong ENG, Kim began to have trouble in breathing and blurry vision in both eyes. He lost sight in the right eye and most vision in his left eye due to methanol poisoning, his doctor said.
“I can only see big shapes of things, but cannot see the center. The doctor was not sure whether I could recover my vision,” said Kim, who dreamed of becoming a barista. “There is not much I can do on my own, from walking on the street to buying groceries.”
“I came forward because I hope there will be no more victims like me,” he said, adding that workers like him dispatched through recruitment agencies are easy to exclude from protection. “There might be many other victims who don’t even know their blindness is due to dangerous working conditions.”
While the government and big businesses appear to do little to monitor multi-layered supply chains in the manufacturing sector, seven irregular workers belonging to Samsung and LG’s lower-tier outsourced subcontractors, all in their 20s and 30s, suffered loss of vision and brain damage due to exposure to methanol at work.
Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, sight loss and even death. Ethanol is recommended over methanol because it is less toxic, but ethanol costs three times more.
According the Labor Ministry, there are 12,153 factories using methanol to produce goods, with the majority being small-scale employers with less than 50 employees.
Amid mounting concerns over safety of workers handling toxic chemicals, the ministry conducted an inspection of about 3,100 factories in February. It imposed penalties on 1,311 employers and ordered a full suspension of business on one company and a partial suspension on eight firms.
As two more victims of alleged methanol poisoning came to light last week, lawmakers from opposition parties condemned the Labor Ministry for its lukewarm efforts to monitor the use of harmful substances at work and stop “preventable” occupational accidents.
“There would have been no more cases of methanol poisoning if the government, subcontracted firms and recruitment agencies made efforts (to prevent methanol poisoning) when the case first surfaced in February 2015,” said Rep. Han Jeong-ae of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea during a press briefing Wednesday.
“It is the result of the Labor Ministry’s failed monitoring of subcontractors and lax management of toxic substances used at work,” she said. “The government should tighten safety regulations and carry out a comprehensive inspection of factories using the toxic substance to find out possible victims.”
Rep. Lee Jeong-mi of the minor Justice Party blamed conglomerates outsourcing tasks to subcontracted firms for neglecting dangerous working conditions through their supply chains.
“Subcontractors for Samsung and LG used the toxic substance methanol only to save 700 won per kilogram,” she said. “Do lives of irregular workers deserve to be wasted like that?”
An official from the Ministry of Employment and Labor said the ministry has “difficulties” in tracking all the victims but it tries to improve the monitoring system.
“Some 300 inspectors across the nation regularly monitor safety of workplaces to prevent similar cases,” the official said. He also added that first-tier businesses have no legal obligation, but need to “make efforts” to enhance safety for workers at their subcontractors.
Lee Sang-yoon, a doctor for occupational environment and health, said a series of methanol poisoning cases shed light on the vulnerability of irregular workers often excluded from the social safety net.
“We are concerned that there are many others who just accept their illness without knowing it might be linked to working conditions,” said the head of Solidarity for Workers’ Health, urging the government to conduct a thorough inspection and promptly accept the victims’ application for industrial insurance funds.
“Though we understand that first-tier manufacturers are not legally responsible, they are morally and socially responsible for laborers working to final goods,” he said, addressing the role of big businesses in enhancing safety for workers.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)