While many laud the globalization of technology as a positive force that spreads the wealth and helps industry grow, a group of Taiwanese workers came to Silicon Valley Thursday to tell a different story.
Their tale has to do with a former RCA facility in Taiwan's northern county of Taoyuan. More than 1,000 former employees of that facility are suffering from cancer and more than 200 have died, according to the visiting workers, who used to make TVs and semiconductors.
Most of those afflicted believe the company's plants polluted groundwater with toxic chemicals, leading to the outbreak of illness, according to the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries and the Self-Help Association of Former RCA Employees. Both are based in Taipei and were represented at a news conference held in San Jose Thursday, seeking publicity for the workers' claims.
Richard Knoph, a spokesman for RCA's current owners, Thomson Multimedia of France, denied responsibility for the illnesses, saying a study conducted by the Taiwan government showed no correlation between the illnesses and the company's facilities. He also said a 1999 lawsuit alleging similar connections, filed in Taiwan by former workers, was dismissed.
After RCA operated the plants for more than two decades, its facilities in northern Taiwan were shut down in 1991 and the area was declared a toxic site by the Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency.
General Electric, which bought RCA in 1986, sold it to Thomson one year later, in 1987. Both GE and Thomson spent millions of dollars for the cleanup of the site in the mid-1990s, removing 10,000 cubic yards of soil and installing municipal water treatment facilities for neighboring communities.
However, without any firm evidence linking workers' illnesses and contamination in the soil, General Electric bears no liability, GE spokesman Gary Sheffer said.
In March, the Taiwan Labor Affairs Council, equivalent to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, released the results of a three- year study finding no increased risk of cancer among the workers, he said.
"If you're asking me about health, the scientific community has determined that there's no increased rate of cancer related to employment at this facility," Sheffer said.
Workers argued that there must be a link and that the companies must be held responsible. After years of failing to get a response from RCA and its parent companies, the workers now have come to the United States to air the issue.
They landed in the Bay Area Thursday with plans that include a noon forum today at the Elihu Harris State Building in downtown Oakland. The group plans to swing through New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., meeting with environmental groups, officials at the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Department of Labor, and members of Congress. The group is also talking to lawyers about potential lawsuits in the United States.
"We ask for justice and compensation for the workers," said Yuling Ku, secretary general of the Taiwan Association.
When RCA opened its first factory in 1970, it held promise of jobs and a better life for thousands of Taiwanese, said Chih Kang-wu, 48, who was hired in 1973 as a 19-year-old high school graduate.
"I was so proud to be working at RCA. It felt really good, working indoors in an air-conditioned building," Wu said through a Mandarin translator Thursday.
Workers were paid $50 per month, a sizable amount in those times, and many employees felt lucky to be there. Some even took photographs in front of the large RCA sign in front of the building.
But problems emerged when some female employees gave birth to stillborn babies, and years later an inordinate number of workers began contracting various forms of cancer.
Wu's wife, whom he met while working at the RCA factory in northern Taiwan, gave birth to a stillborn child and in 1997 was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She had successful surgery, but still receives treatment, he said.
Wu and former co-worker Ko Ping-liang, 50, said Taiwanese workers at the site were given tap water to drink while American managers drank bottled water.
"It's the worst case of cancer cluster in the world caused by the high-tech industry," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a nonprofit group that studies technology and toxicity. "This is one of the worst cases of how globalization has hurt the world."
It's indeed the unfortunate price of globalization, said Christine Rosen, associate professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.
"Everybody loves growth... but what's hard about it is that there are these costs associated with these benefits and profits," said Rosen, who teaches business history and environmental strategy and management.
It may be difficult for the Taiwanese workers to file a lawsuit in the United States because the allegations stem from abroad, she said.
"Globalization is still new enough where these conflicts haven't been worked out before," Rosen said. "But no matter what, this publicity won't be good for RCA.... This is something that corporate managers need to realize -- that it can come back and bite them."
Wu said he just hopes the two-week tour in the United States will educate Americans about how a U.S. company injured workers in Taiwan, and encourage government officials on both sides of the Pacific to do something about it.
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