[Column] At the age of 23

Posted on : 2010-04-07 13:11 KST Modified on : 2010-04-07 13:11 KST
Hong Se-hwa, Planning Committee Member
 Planning Committee Member
Planning Committee Member

Today, the TV and print media are reporting heavily on the quarterly results of Samsung Electronics, with 34 trillion Won ($38.3 billion) in sales and 4.3 trillion Won in operating profits. They certainly must have racked up record figures last time as well, but we heard nothing about the effects this would have on the working class economy, perhaps because of a lack of information. Certainly, that number is important news for the subjects of the Samsung kingdom, who believe the figure will fill their own bellies as well. But if you are a physical laborer, even if not a citizen of a democratic republic, shouldn’t you recall less that astronomical figure and more Park Ji-yeon, who passed away in its shadow at the age of 23?

Park went to work at Samsung Semiconductor’s Onyang Plant in 2004, when she was a senior in high school. Three years later she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. She battled the disease for three years before ultimately passing away. The first thought that comes to mind is unfathomable sadness for this young woman unable to enjoy the flower of her youth. Rational people would cite the once-healthy Park‘s exposure to chemicals and radiation as the cause of her contracting leukemia, but that kind of reasoning will not go over in the Samsung kingdom. Instead, they persuaded her family not to apply for industrial accident compensation, promising to cover Park’s hospital costs and even cover renovations for her family‘s old home. This was Samsung’s way of soothing the grief of family members who sent their daughter to work in their factory. To date, the confirmed cases of workers who died while working at Samsung Semiconductor stands at nine. But the Korea Workers‘ Compensation and Welfare Service has not recognized industrial accident claims for any of them.

What dreams did Park Ji-yeon envision as she went to work at Samsung Semiconductor, unable to go to university when seemingly everyone else did? Did she ever pause for a moment in the face of a brutal reality where, if she did not want to sell her soul, the only route to survival was to throw herself into a “clean zone for semiconductors, not a clean zone for humans”? As neoliberalist control grows stronger, the tedium of earning a living in this country is becoming less fearsome than the very workplace where that living is earned.

Someone once said that everyone is ultimately interested in “a place for themselves.” We are born dignified human beings, and we work to attain livable socioeconomic conditions to preserve that human dignity. But in the Samsung kingdom, obtaining those material conditions requires that you toss that human dignity aside. The inverted values in South Korean society are encapsulated very concisely in this way.

“Thinking About Samsung (Samseong-eul Saenggakhanda)” by attorney Kim Yong-cheol includes the exceedingly exceptional human story of singer Na Hoon-a, who did not respond to the call of the loyal Samsung high officials, but it also includes the bizarre story of flight attendants in a jet for the Samsung family serving on their knees. But we all know: those flight attendants on their knees are not the only ones selling their souls to keep a place for themselves.

Despite the deaths of one young laborer after another, the Samsung kingdom is doing quite well and will continue to do so on into the future. At the same time, another likely contributing factor was the fact that these were the deaths of workers who lacked the competitiveness to sell their souls on the market and had to endure with their bodies instead. Amid all of this fervor about the regional elections, who among the ones talking about public welfare or the working class economy can recall Seoul taxi driver Heo Se-uk, who immolated himself three years ago in protest of the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA)?

As I wish for his happiness in the world beyond, I must hold on to the hope that in that world, the significance of a reality that must be changed is alive and well, rather than in our world, where such things seem imminent, and that it is not a place in which souls are forced to compromise or exhaust themselves before they have yet matured. 

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