Workers unhappy with ruling in RCA pollution case, vow to fight on

2018/09/16 10:12:11 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Workers unhappy with ruling in RCA pollution case, vow to fight on

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA Staff Reporter

Liu Ho-yun (劉荷雲) is a 67-year-old retired quality control factory worker who has spent the last 20 years of her life in courtrooms seeking restitution for workplace illness and on the streets protesting against what she sees as great injustice.

Like most other people her age, she says, what she really wants to do is live a relaxed life and spend more time playing with her grandchildren.

However, Liu feels impelled to continue the battle against Radio Corporation of America (RCA), where she once worked and suffered damage to her health, as did hundreds of other employees of the electronics factory in Taiwan, due to workplace pollution.

"What we have been fighting for is nothing but justice," said Liu, who has been plagued for years with problems related to her reproductive system.

The justice they were seeking was not evident in the final ruling that was handed down Aug. 16 by the Supreme Court in a class action suit initially brought by almost 580 former RCA employees, Liu said.

Although the court found RCA and its parent and successor corporations -- American multinational conglomerate General Electric (GE) and French firms Thomson Consumer Electronics and Technicolor SA -- liable in the deaths and illnesses of the former RCA employees, the total amount awarded in the class action suit was only about NT$500 million (US$16.07 million).

"The final court judgement was way below our expectations," said Liu, head of the RCA Self-Help Association.

Fight begins

The fight began in 1999 when about 1,500 workers formed the association with the main goal of suing RCA over a number of deaths and illnesses that they said were caused by workplace pollution.

The litigants said that between 1970 and 1992, they and their now deceased coworkers were exposed to pollutants that were used in the manufacture of printed circuit boards for color televisions and other electronic products.

At the time, the workers said, they were told that they were using "detergents" to clean the printed circuit boards on the RCA assembly lines, a term that led them to assume that the cleaning products were ordinary household detergents.

For 22 years, workers on the assembly line were handling the "detergents," which turned out to be hazardous chemicals, without any protective gear or safety training, they said.

In the period 1992 to 2004, more than 1,300 RCA workers were diagnosed with cancer and 221 of them have passed away. Since the litigation began in 2004, 78 of the plaintiffs have died.

One of them was Chin Tsu-hui (秦祖慧), who died of breast cancer in November 2015 at the age of 58, days before the class action suit appeal began in the Taiwan High Court.

When the case was in the Taipei District Court, Chin testified about her health problems, which she said were not limited to cancer but also included lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma.

She charged that her illnesses were caused by exposure to chemicals in the RCA workplace, a claim that was corroborated by epidemiologists and toxicologists in court.

The pollutants included trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, which are classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, according to one of the epidemiologists Lin Yi-ping (林宜平), who at the time was a research fellow at National Taiwan University.

In a study that Lin and other researchers carried out among the RCA workers, it was found that some 31 chemicals and organic solvents in the workplace had led to 65 different diseases among the plaintiffs, she told CNA.

The health damage to the workers included cancers, miscarriages and other reproductive disorders, as well as other serious illnesses, according to a paper co-authored by Lin, who is now dean of the Institute of Science at National Yangming University.

Based partly on those findings, the courts, over the past three years, have ruled in favor of the workers, but the case has careened from the district court to the Supreme Court and now back to the high court in a series of complex appeals by both sides and the splitting off of the litigants into three different groups.

Group A comprises relatives of deceased workers, Group B is made up of sick plaintiffs, and Group C those who were exposed to the hazardous chemicals but have not shown any symptoms of illness.

By the time the case reached the Taiwan High Court in 2015, the number of plaintiffs had shrunk to 529.

"Many became worn down by all the negativity in the long, wearisome litigation, in what has been described as a David versus Goliath court battle," Liu said.

David versus Goliath

In the most recent ruling by the Supreme Court, it upheld the high court's award of NT$500 million in total to the 262 plaintiffs in Groups A and B, which would give each sick former RCA worker an amount of NT$400,000 to NT$4.8 million, while the families of the deceased workers would each get NT$900,000 to NT$2.2 million.

With regard to Group C, the Supreme Court has asked the high court to reconsider its total award of NT$200 million to the 246 people, but a date has not yet been set for the new high court hearing.

For many of the former RCA workers, however, it is a matter of too little, too late.

"I'd rather not live with the constant fear of having a serious illness than to get the compensation," said Lee Hsiu-mei (李秀梅), who developed cystic kidney disease after working at RCA for 15 years and had to have one of her kidneys removed.

Lee said she also endured severe family pressure after her second child was born with a heart disease, as her in-laws began pointing a finger at her for passing on a defective gene.

"I broke down and almost screamed when the RCA pollution matter was revealed (in 1994), and I tried to stop blaming myself (for my child's condition)," she said.

Among those workers stricken by cancer, the issue is more fundamental, as they think the damages awarded by the court cannot compensate for what they have spent on medical treatment over the years and still need to spend.

Another matter of concern is whether the penalty was enough to serve as a deterrent to other companies.

"If it's not, the RCA case, the first of its kind in Taiwan, would not be the last, I think," Liu said. RCA and the three other companies are represented by three of the most high-priced law firms in Taiwan, while the workers and their families have had the help of a team of 13 pro-bono attorneys, led by Joseph Lin (林永頌).

Lin has argued that there have been several cases in U.S. courts in which damages were awarded to people without perceptible health symptoms, on grounds that exposure to pollution can alter human DNA during a latency period.

The workers have also had the support of hundreds of academics in fields such as epidemiology, toxicology, and sociology, as well as help from activists.

The battle is as much for human rights as it is for compensation and will continue, according to the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries, a labor rights group that has been mobilizing some of that support.

On Aug. 24, the Taipei District Court held a hearing on a new case filed by 1,100 workers against the four companies, while the association is still getting requests from other RCA workers to launch a third class action suit.

That day, Liu and scores of other protesters gathered in front of the court to make their voices heard and to call for true justice, as they have been doing for many years.

"I will fight until the last minute of my life," said one of the protesters, Chen Yueh-tao (陳月桃), a former RCA worker who has cancer. "And even after I die, my son and grandson will continue to fight for me."

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