Editor’s note: We have decided to keep the reporter anonymous because of concerns about their safety.
In late 2012, Kang, an environmental safety officer working for Samsung, visited the company’s factory in Bac Ninh, Vietnam. The factory’s 16,000 workers, specializing in assembling high-tech electronics, churned out a hundred million of the company’s smartphones every year.
Bac Ninh is located in the industrial north of the country, among miles of lush green farmland. Here, suppliers for tech giants — from Apple to Microsoft, Samsung to Google — employ thousands of locals to work on production lines. The processes can involve powerful chemicals, used to paint, clean, and cool components in contained environments.
Kang, at the time a 30-year veteran of Samsung, thought he was on a routine visit to assess repairs after a fire incident. (Kang, who retired two years ago, requested use of his family name only to avoid reprisal from the company.) But as he stepped into the area of the factory where workers sprayed phone cases, an acrid smell hit his face.
Kang looked around. Many workers were covering their noses as they walked the floor, he told Rest of World. Some wore masks, but they looked too flimsy to be graded to filter harmful chemicals. The airless, foul-smelling production floor made him uneasy. “This factory is breaking the law, and must be shut down,” he recalled thinking.
It wasn’t the only indication of what Kang believed to be lax management, he said in an interview with Rest of World. The source of the fumes, he said, came from the air filtration system. Bags of activated carbon, intended to absorb harmful substances, sat unreplaced for six months in various parts of the system. Workers had tried to release the fumes by creating gaps in the factory wall, so the unfiltered air leaked outside, Kang said.
As he investigated further, Kang realized the facility didn’t have a production wastewater treatment tank, critical for isolating chemically contaminated water used to clean equipment and paint stains. Instead, the factory’s wastewater was discharged directly through rainwater pipes to the river nearby, he claimed. Troubled, he returned to South Korea and wrote a report to his superiors.
Over two more visits to Bac Ninh, Kang found the factory’s stench unchanged. In 2013, he returned with an improvement team. Their conclusion, according to Kang, was that the cost and trouble of replacing the ventilation system was prohibitive. In 2016, he was transferred to Bac Ninh full-time, and continued to lobby for progress.
Still, despite his years of warnings, conditions failed to change. Complaints against Samsung’s labor conditions in Vietnam began to appear. In 2016, a 22-year-old female worker suddenly collapsed at Samsung’s Thai Nguyen factory, sparking whispers of overwork and occupational poisoning among the worker community. A 2017 survey of 45 Bac Ninh and Thai Nguyen workers indicated they suffered from frequent fainting, eyesight damage, nosebleeds, even miscarriage. In both events, Samsung did not acknowledge a connection to the workplace. The company threatened legal action against the civil society groups that authored the study, sparking “serious concern” from several members of the United Nations’ Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.
Late last year, Kang finally blew the whistle to South Korean investigative news outlet Newstapa, which published his story in March. In it, he alleged that Samsung’s managers, in both Vietnam and South Korea, regularly ignored environmental and safety regulations, and that in all 14 years of Bac Ninh’s operation, he was not aware of those lapses ever being investigated by the Vietnamese government. Samsung has refuted the news report, saying the company is “strictly complying” with environmental safety laws in the countries where it operates. The company did not respond to Rest of World’s request for comment.
In an interview with Rest of World, Kang alleged further details from his years spent at Samsung’s Bac Ninh plant. Rest of World also reviewed an internal report, written by Kang, about the chemical products used at Bac Ninh between 2009 and 2017. Analyzing the report for Newstapa, activist groups Supporters for the Health and Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry (SHARPS) and International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) found that 63% to 70% of the products used in the Bac Ninh plant contained at least one chemical acutely toxic to the eyes, skin, and other body organs.
SHARPS’ analysis also highlighted a neurotoxin, toluene. Kang claims that Samsung restricted its usage for cleaning since 2006, but, in his report, documented that toluene was being freely used to clean as recently as 2016. Toluene’s side effects can be severe, including fainting, headaches, impaired coordination, and birth defects. Rest of World spoke to four former Samsung employees at the factory, two of whom corroborated some of Kang’s allegations, while two claimed a lack of knowledge. But every worker also told Rest of World that, despite the issues raised by Kang, Samsung operates the best-run factories of the global tech giants in northern Vietnam.
Joe DiGangi, IPEN’s special adviser, told Rest of World that Kang’s whistleblowing represents the first detailed description of how Samsung Vietnam allegedly uses certain dangerous chemical products. Companies such as Samsung often block the release of that information, claiming confidentiality.
And while toxic chemicals are often used in electronics plants, their ill effects are supposed to be regulated, in Vietnam and elsewhere, by mandated wearing of masks with carbon filters, working exhaust facilities, and proper disposal techniques.
“It’s like opening the curtain on the window,” DiGangi said. “Now we can see.”
Samsung Group, a more than 320-billion-dollar conglomerate, is an industrial giant. The company is estimated to account for over 15% of South Korea’s GDP, and is involved with everything from smartphones to shipyards. Overseas, the company projects its brand power through electronics: foldable phones, advanced OLED displays, and washing machines famous for playing a jaunty tune.
Kang’s whistleblowing is not the first time Samsung’s safety and environment practices have come under scrutiny. This past June, a state probe in Austin, Texas found that equipment failure at Samsung’s U.S. semiconductor plant caused the dumping of roughly 763,000 gallons of sulfuric acid waste into local waterways. In South Korea, media have reported tens of Samsung workers dying of blood-related illnesses, for which the company finally compensated their families in 2014. In Vietnam, a local newspaper’s attempt to report on the labor abuse claims of overwork and chemical exposure were quickly dismissed by the company.
15% The percentage of South Korea’s GDP that Samsung Group is estimated to account for.
Quang spent four years at Bac Ninh, between 2010 and 2014, in Samsung’s phone-case painting facility. He told Rest of World he was not surprised by Kang’s allegations. More than eight years after leaving the factory, he’s still haunted by the strong odor from the paint shop. Quang, like all ex-workers at Samsung who spoke to Rest of World, asked to be identified by a pseudonym, fearing reprisal from his former employer.
“It had a pungent, sour smell. [I could smell it] though I was wearing a mask at the time,” Quang said. After two years at Samsung, Quang and his colleagues discovered that they had thinning of the blood during a routine health checkup organized by the company, he claimed.
“Before hiring us, Samsung had our health examined. Our health results at that time were good,” he said.
Quang said he was often tasked with cleaning the pipe filled with paint dust in the air filter tower. Sometimes, the paint dust was so thick that he couldn’t remove it all. When that would happen, he said his manager would ask him to remove the air filter to allow the air to escape.
The former line worker believes that harmful chemicals were flushed into the environment. “Other workers hardly know this,” Quang added. “At that time, I was not aware of its harmful effects. For the sake of my family’s livelihood, I could only follow management’s orders.”
Quang was also in charge of overseeing the cleaning of tanks that held chemicals. He alleges the company subcontracted to do the disposal would dump the materials into a nearby river. It didn’t occur to him that the effluence might do damage, he said.
Minh Anh, a former safety auditor at the Bac Ninh plant for eight years, told Rest of World he doesn’t recall ever smelling chemicals at the phone screen facility. This was an area in the production facility where Samsung’s strictest safety and hygiene requirements apply. But those standards would be pushed aside when the factory entered peak production, he believed.
“At those times, our auditor team was not allowed by the factory manager to inspect and supervise the lines,” said Minh Anh, who quit his job recently. “They thought our duties would reduce productivity, and they received orders from their superiors in Vietnam to stop us.”
Not every employee of the Samsung Bac Ninh plant that Rest of World spoke to had a negative experience. Two of the four interviewed workers, who quit at the end of 2022 after nine and 10 years respectively, said they were not aware of any safety or environmental violations, and “completely trust the company.” Neither worked in the painting process, but were involved in the supply of water for production and in phone-case making.
All four workers agreed on one thing: Compared to other manufacturing facilities in Bac Ninh, Samsung was still the best company in terms of salary, labor safety, environmental standards, and employee incentives.
In 2021, the smartphone painting stage at the center of Kang’s allegations was moved to Samsung’s factory in the Thai Nguyen province in northeastern Vietnam, and outsourced to its suppliers.
Kang also claims that environmental and labor violations at Samsung’s vendors — around 80% of which were South Korean companies operating in Vietnam — were worse. In his interview with Rest of World, he cited his 2017 report alleging that some had even secretly and rampantly used methanol, a chemical that had been restricted by Samsung.
In early March this year, 37 workers at HSTECH Vina, Samsung’s second-tier supplier in Bac Ninh, were diagnosed with methanol poisoning, media reported. A 42-year-old woman died, and two 16- and 17-year-old teenagers were in critical condition with severe eye and brain damage. According to Vietnamese labor law, employers are not allowed to expose employees over 15 and under 18 to any work involving chemicals.
On March 29, six public interest groups, including IPEN, gathered at Samsung’s global headquarters in Seoul and called on the company to take responsibility for the incident. The groups also demanded that Samsung ban the use of methanol altogether in its factories and supply chain.
“Samsung must take responsibility for accidents and stop outsourcing risks,” said DiGangi.
He also believed that the company had enough resources to comply with environmental regulations, but had potentially skirted them in Vietnam. “That’s using Vietnam like it’s a garbage can,” DiGangi said.
In December 2022, Vietnam’s prime minister Pham Minh Chinh pledged to continue creating favorable conditions for Samsung Group’s ventures in the country. He also said he expected Samsung to consider Vietnam the most important base in its production chain.
Kang told Rest of World he wanted better for those still working in the plants.
“Samsung was not the Samsung that the corporation promised to be. I had been completely alone for many years of fighting, asking them to comply with the regulations,” he said.