The Ministry of Employment and Labor is at the center of a controversy over its decision to disclose reports on the working environments of Samsung Electronics and Samsung Display factories.
According to the decision, what the companies deem as critical information in the reports they have regularly submitted to the ministry -- such as the layout of semiconductor production facilities and chemicals used at each stage of the manufacturing process -- can be released to the public. However, they fear that core semiconductor technology, which has led the growth of the nation’s economy, will be leaked to foreign competition.
With controversy flaring rather than easing, the ministry on Tuesday reconfirmed its position, arguing the reports have no information that can be regarded as business secrets as the companies claim. The basis of the argument to release the information rests on opinion of the Korean Industrial Hygiene Association. However, the association consists mainly of professors of hygiene and medical care. It is questionable if the association assessed the industrial value of semiconductor know-how properly.
The ministry also said even if business secrets are leaked, consequences can be settled through administrative trial, but if they are leaked, irrecoverable damage will be inevitable.
Samsung Electronics, fearing a possible know-how leak, asked the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy to hand down its authentic judgment on whether the reports in question contain core technology data that should be protected legally. Semiconductor is designated as one of the state’s core technology areas to be protected.
The controversy started with a high court ruling in February which ordered the disclosure of reports on the working environment of a Samsung Electronics factory in Onyang, South Chungcheong Province. The case the court ruled on was filed by the bereaved family of a worker of the factory who died of leukemia. The family regards the reports as necessary to prove leukemia was caused by noxious factors in the factory environment.
Following the ruling, a civic group advocating the health and human rights of semiconductor factory workers and program producers of a broadcasting network requested the release of working environment measurement reports for several Samsung Display and Samsung Electronics factories.
The problem is that the Ministry of Employment and Labor decided to release the reports not only to the litigant family, but also to the third parties such as civic groups and TV producers. Then, Samsung Electronics filed for an injunction to stop the disclosure of the reports. The point is whether the reports contain critical content that must not be leaked. This problem will be answered by an industrial technology protection committee under the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
According to the civic group, about 320 former Samsung semiconductor factory workers have reported suspected vocational diseases for the past decade and 118 of them died. So far, Samsung has been reluctant to expose its working environment data citing business secrets.
Victims of suspected industrial disasters and their families should be allowed to confirm the data on the environment in which they worked, and their access to the necessary information must not be obstructed. The high court took this into account in ruling in favor of the disclosure of the reports.
However, a possible leak of important information to China, among others, can cause a lot of damage to Korea’s core industry. China is desperate to catch up with South Korea in semiconductor technology.
The government should play it safe when it comes to releasing the reports which can be of help only to foreign rivals of Korean companies.
It is hard to understand that while the US and Europe try hard to prevent technology leaks, the Ministry of Employment and Labor is less attentive to them.
If the reports are found to contain critical information, utmost prudence must be taken when they are disclosed. The Ministry of Employment and Labor must reconsider its position to release the reports not only to interested parties, but also to members of the general public, including the civic group and the producers, if they request. It needs to narrow the scope of those who can access the reports.
It is important to protect laborers, but protecting technology envied by foreign competitors is just as important.