Samsung and the South Korean government are facing criticism after an investigation revealed the government allowed the company to withhold information from employees who became fatally ill from working in the company's computer chip and display factories.

A worker safety group in the country documented more than 200 cases of serious illness among Samsung workers reporting cases of leukaemia, lupus, lymphoma and multiple sclerosis.

The former Samsung semiconductor and LCD workers who became unwell were mostly in their 20s and 30s. Seventy-six died.

According to an explosive investigative report by the Associated Press, just two words allowed Samsung to deny information to sick workers and their families with help from the government: trade secrets.

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Hwang Yu-mi was among those who died from exposure to harmful chemicals while working for Samsung.

In her final year of high school she went to work for the tech giant where she would bath silicon wafers in chemicals at a factory that makes computer chips for laptops and other devices. Four years later, she died of leukaemia at the age of 22.

A man looks at boards showing portraits of victims who were former employees of Samsung semiconductor and LCD factories outside the Samsung buildings in Seoul. Photo / AP
A man looks at boards showing portraits of victims who were former employees of Samsung semiconductor and LCD factories outside the Samsung buildings in Seoul. Photo / AP

After Yu-mi's death in 2007, her father, Hwang Sang-gi, learned a 30-year-old worker at the same semiconductor line also had died of leukaemia. Convinced they died because of their work, the taxi driver launched a movement demanding the government investigate health risks at Samsung Electronics Co. factories, AP reported.

The bereaved father finally sued after his first claim for government compensation was denied. However he struggled to get details about the factory environment.

A government document he received about his daughter's workplace had a section for listing the chemicals used there, but that space was left blank because Samsung did not release that information to worker-safety officials.

It is extremely difficult for South Koreans to successfully lobby for government compensation for occupational injuries and without details of the harmful chemicals his daughter was routinely exposed to. Hwang had a nearly impossible task.

Hwang also told AP that Samsung had offered him 1 billion won ($A1.18 million) to remain silent on the matter.

Instead, he did the opposite.

Members of Banolim, an advocacy group for workers in the electronic industry, perform during a rally against Samsung. Photo / AP
Members of Banolim, an advocacy group for workers in the electronic industry, perform during a rally against Samsung. Photo / AP
In this March 5, 2016, photo, Park Min-sook, a former Samsung chip factory worker and a breast cancer survivor, shows her pictures taken while working at Samsung. Photo / AP
In this March 5, 2016, photo, Park Min-sook, a former Samsung chip factory worker and a breast cancer survivor, shows her pictures taken while working at Samsung. Photo / AP

South Korea law bars governments and public agencies from withholding corporate information needed "to protect the lives, physical safety, and health" of individuals on trade-secrets grounds, but there are no penalties for violations.

On ocassion government officials have openly said corporate interests take priority, that evaluating trade secrets claims is difficult, and that they fear being sued for sharing data against a company's will.

"We have to keep secrets that belong to our clients," said Yang Won-baek, of the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency, or KOSHA. "It's about trust," he added.

But asked why he used the seemingly incongruous word "clients" to describe companies his government agency helps regulate, Yang said it's probably because he treats those companies "as I treat clients".

In an emailed statement to AP, Samsung said it never "intentionally" blocked workers from accessing information.

However court documents tell a different story. They reveal Samsung asked the government not to disclose details of chemical exposure levels and other inspections - even at judges' request for use in workers' compensation lawsuits.

In a letter to regulators signed by the company's CEO, Samsung said that if factory details including "types and volumes of substances" were released for a workers' compensation case, "it is feared that the technology gap with rivals at home and overseas would be reduced and our company's competitiveness would be lowered. For that reason they are trade secrets that we treat strictly as secrets, we request not to disclose."

Kim Mi-seon, 36, is a former Samsung display factory worker who lost sight in 2014 and has since been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Photo / AP
Kim Mi-seon, 36, is a former Samsung display factory worker who lost sight in 2014 and has since been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Photo / AP

Since 2008, 56 workers have applied for occupational safety compensation from the government. Only 10 have won compensation, most after years of court battles. Half of the other 46 claims were rejected and half remain under review

More than 100 families left with few other options accepted a compensation plan Samsung proposed last year, which covered some medical fees and some income for workers with any of 26 diseases. Some families rejected the deal.

Samsung states on its website that its chemical management system is "rigorous" and "state-of-the-art." It has had "real-time 24/7 chemical monitoring" in all facilities since 2007, the year the government began inquiries into Yu-mi's death.

In 2014, seven years after Yu-mi's death, an appeals court affirmed a lower court's finding of "a significant causal relationship" between Yu-mi's leukaemia and her likely exposure to benzene, other chemicals and ionised radiation at work. Hwang Sang-gi received nearly $175,000 from the government.

Recently, there has been some movement toward greater transparency.

In June, for the first time, the government's worker safety agency formally designated a case of malignant lymphoma as an occupational disease at a Samsung semiconductor factory, despite Samsung's refusal to hand over exposure data and other information. Samsung cited trade secrets, but also said it lacked some data.

A group founded by Hwang Sang-gi called to fight for workers' rights praised the ruling as a step forward, because the agencies did not hold the absence of data against the workers.

"It didn't rely on the company and made an independent evaluation," said Lee Jong-ran, a labour lawyer with the group. "But it took three years and eight months. It took too long."

- AP