October 2018, Quezon City. “Stories from the Clean Room,” a moving documentary exposing health and human rights violations in the electronics industry, drew close to 300 viewers at its screening yesterday at Cine Adarna, University of the Philippines (UP) Film Institute. The attendees came from various youth and student groups, labor federations, informal waste workers’ associations, and environmental and health organizations.
The film, directed by Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS), a South Korean public interest organization, shed light on the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of electronics, especially at the so-called “Clean Rooms,” and their impacts to workers’ health and safety.
The EcoWaste Coalition, KAISA-Nagkakaisang Iskolar para sa Pamantasan at Sambayanan (KAISA UP) and the Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan (SPARK) co-organized the film screening in partnership with SHARPS, IPEN (a global NGO network for a toxics-free future), Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, and a host of concerned local organizations.
IPEN and partner groups screening the film in 25 countries are hoping that public awareness of the dangerous chemicals in electronics will spur the public and governments to demand that the industry reveal listings of toxic chemicals and end to the practice of hiding toxic liabilities behind “trade secrets.”
“Clean Rooms” refers to the highly controlled areas within electronics factories where large numbers of dangerous chemicals are used in the course of electronics production. The irony in the name is that the face masks and body suits for workers entering the “Clean Rooms” are not designed for worker safety, but rather to keep dust and dirt off of the products.
The film featured testimonies of 23 people whose lives have been devastated by sickness and death from toxic chemical exposures while making LCD screens and the chips that power our electronic devices such as laptops and mobile phones.
“There were no dry eyes when we previewed this film. The people telling their stories in this movie are ringing an alarm bell that we in the Philippines need to heed to protect our workers, especially women who are the prime labor force in the electronics industry,” said Primo Morillo, E-Waste Campaigner, EcoWaste Coalition. “Chemicals in electronics production is not only an issue for workers’ health, it is a women’s issue as well because many of the dangerous chemicals in electronics production are especially threatening to a developing fetus.”
After the film screening, Dr. Jeong-ok Kong of SHARPS delivered a video message where she updated the audience that they were able to claim victory for more than 30 workers who are now set to receive compensation. “These victories open the door of Korean workers compensation system widely for other victims,” she said. Kong also underscored that this is a product of a long struggle, including sit-in street protests that lasted for 1,023 days.
Hwang Sang-gi lost his 22-year-old daughter Hwang Yumi to leukemia after her stint as a semiconductor worker. Like most others in the predominately female electronics labor force, Yumi had been recruited from high school. She worked on a fabrication line bathing semiconductor chips in chemicals. Learning that another young woman from the same production line also died of the same disease, Hwang Sang-gi began an inquiry that has grown into a movement to break the silence around hazardous chemicals used in the electronics industry.
In “Stories from the Clean Room,” Mr. Hwang and 22 others describe grave illnesses, such as leukemia, lymphomas, brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, and infertility, and share their visceral stories about common chemical exposures in electronics production. Another father in the film whose daughter, Yoon Eun-jin, worked at Samsung Semiconductor and died at age 23 said, “We know now that they used really deadly chemicals, but we didn’t know back then. Did the company ask the parents for permission and tell them the company is using deadly chemicals? If we’d known, we wouldn’t have sent our kids there.”
“Workers and their families are paying a painful cost for use of toxic chemicals in electronics production. These costs should be paid by the industry,” said Jongran Lee of SHARPS. “Products should be designed and produced in ways that eliminate their potential for harm to human health and the environment.”
Toxic chemicals used in electronics include solvents, metals, persistent organic pollutants, such as certain flame retardants, endocrine disruptors, and known carcinogens, mutagens, and substances toxic to reproduction and development. In South Korea, a peer-reviewed scientific study revealed high rates of spontaneous abortion and menstrual aberration among female microelectronics workers aged 20 to 39 years old. Similar concerns emerged when researchers in Vietnam recently published a revealing report exposing health and labor violations at mobile phone factories, including reports that miscarriages are common.
“Mobile phones and computers are used daily by billions of people, but few are aware of the toxic chemicals used or the occupational health and safety issues involved in electronics production,” said Dr. Joe DiGangi, Senior Science and Technical Advisor of IPEN. “Stories from the Clean Room” pulls back the curtain to show the human face of harm and the need for action.”
To date, SHARPS has documented over 400 cases of severe and often fatal occupational illnesses related to exposures in the electronics industry in South Korea. While 144 workers have died, a growing number have won court and government rulings linking their illnesses to work in electronics factories. Samsung, the largest and most secretive electronics corporation, continues to refuse to reveal the chemicals that it uses in manufacturing. Corporate refusal to disclose chemical identity and denial of compensation to sick workers and their families are running themes in the film.
You may watch the trailer here: