Protect corporate secretsThe Ministry of Employment and Labor’s decision to allow public access to the results of its evaluation of Samsung Electronics’ manufacturing sites created an uproar at Korea’s biggest technology company. The government explained that public disclosure is necessary to defend workers against occupational diseases and injuries, but doing so without discretion can also seriously impair protection of the country’s most valued semiconductor technology.
The ministry said it will disclose its evaluation on work sites of Samsung Display in South Chungcheong and fabrication lines of Samsung Electronics across Gyeonggi in compliance with requests from bereaved families of workers who had died after working at chip and display-making cleanrooms. The action was suspended after a court accepted Samsung Electronics’ request for an injunction against the move.
The reports had the findings of the ministry’s semiannual worksite investigation for maintenance and safety. In the case of Samsung Electronics, the report details the work conditions of every process while making ultra-fine chips from a silicon wafer. The creation involves over 500 processes. The chip-making process is a top corporate secret as it defines the company’s edge in the highly-competitive and exclusive world of semiconductors. The wafer fabrication process is similar, but what equipment and chemicals the maker uses determines the yield per wafer that defines the competitiveness in chip-making. Industry experts advise the government to be extra careful with Samsung Electronics, given its dominant position in the semiconductor community.
Samsung Electronics last month filed for a judicial order to stop the ministry’s disclosure to the general public. The Central Administrative Appeals Commission ordered a temporary injunction to the act, but the ministry said it would stay committed to its plan to disclose the materials for applicants. Samsung Electronics would have felt betrayal for complying with the authorities’ examination with full trust of confidentiality. Samsung is being closely chased by China’s competition. China begins mass production of chips from the latter half of this year. By 2025, it plans to up the share of employment of locally produced chips to 70 percent.
Samsung Electronics’ president of the semiconductor division, Kim Ki-nam, vehemently protested the action, saying that it could cause leaks of the company’s hard won knowledge. If a worker has died from occupational hazard, authorities must investigate the cause. But disclosing corporate secrets is another matter. All governments do their utmost to protect the intellectual property rights of their enterprises. The Labor Ministry also must remember that it is a part of the government.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 9, Page 30