Samsung Electronics' Bac Ninh plant
Former Samsung safety manager and whistleblower Mr. Kang provided photos of the inside of Samsung Electronics' Bac Ninh plant, taken in early 2013, to South Korean news outlet Newstapa.

Samsung insider talks blowing the whistle on a polluting cell phone plant in Vietnam

In revelations made to South Korean newsroom Newstapa last year, a former safety manager says he raised concerns about noxious gas and effluent discharges from the factory for years — but was met with inaction.

January 9, 2024

This story is a co-publication with Newstapa.

A whistleblower whose allegations of environmental misconduct rattled South Korea’s largest company says that he doesn’t regret coming forward — but that he was isolated by his company in the aftermath and that many coworkers have refused to speak to him. 

Now retired, the whistleblower, who asked to be identified only as Mr. Kang, was an environmental safety manager for Samsung for more than 40 years until 2021. He first disclosed allegations of pollution and corporate inaction by Samsung at one of its flagship cell phone manufacturing plants in Vietnam last year to Newstapa, a leading South Korean investigative news outlet. 

Samsung is one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers and among the most powerful South Korean companies. 

Mr. Kang spoke to The Examination in one of the first interviews given since the Newstapa investigation was published. According to internal reports, Newstapa wrote, Samsung emitted potentially carcinogenic gases without adequate controls and illegally discharged wastewater and raw sewage into the community. 

In documents shared with reporters, Mr. Kang identified dozens of health violations at the Samsung plant, which is north of Hanoi. Residents who live nearby told Newstapa the wastewater had damaged a once thriving rice field, stoking health fears for those eating the grains.


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Senior managers at Samsung knew of the pollution yet hesitated to act over seven years for fear of losing profits, according to Newstapa, which added that the company later outsourced some of its more dangerous activities to contractors in Vietnam with even fewer controls.

In 2017, a separate report about the factory published by Vietnamese researchers and the International Pollutants Elimination Network, a leading toxic chemical research nonprofit, identified labor law violations and health complaints from female employees, including dizziness and miscarriages.

Samsung and the Vietnamese government did not respond to The Examination’s requests for comment. The company has previously denied wrongdoing, saying that it complies with environment and safety laws. 

In the interview with The Examination, Mr. Kang said he remains concerned about toxic pollution emanating from the plant. His responses, translated from Korean, have been edited and condensed for clarity.

What were the most serious risks to Vietnamese residents living around the plant at Bac Ninh?

The greatest risk to residents was the so-called adsorption tower, which treats dust and organic solvents from painting phone cases. During that process, untreated and hazardous airborne substances are emitted.

The substances can accumulate in the body through the respiratory tract, posing a risk to human health.

In addition, factory wastewater was illegally discharged and flowed into rice fields via rivers, damaging crops.

To my knowledge, the Vietnamese government has never investigated this issue.

You say Samsung failed to take adequate steps for seven years to stop or reduce the release of pollutants into the air and water. Why do you think it took so long?

In the case of wastewater, a treatment plant was installed – albeit belatedly – and the water pollution issue was gradually resolved.

But air pollution concerns remain. The adsorption tower needs to be expanded due to the lack of capacity of the air pollution control facility that can handle hazardous atmospheric substances emitted from the painting process.  However, due to the structure of the factory, it is impossible to increase the capacity of the adsorption tower.

The Examination
Former Samsung safety manager and whistleblower Mr. Kang provided photos of Samsung Electronics' Bac Ninh plant, taken in early 2013, to South Korean news outlet Newstapa.

You first raised your concerns with management superiors at the factory and later also contacted Samsung executives. Why did you think it was necessary to warn top executives?

I reported the problem to a manager and other officials during a business trip in December 2012. There was no feedback for improvement for serious environmental problems.

As an environmental safety manager, I was aware that this was a serious problem that needed to be improved immediately because it violated environmental laws. I saw that it was a matter that could become an issue externally and pose a risk to the health of workers inside the factory and residents outside the factory.

What was Samsung's response to your concerns?

In February 2013, odor experts were sent on a business trip to Vietnam to assess the current situation. However, fundamental improvements were not implemented due to structurally incorrect installation of air pollution facilities.

Executives recognized the seriousness of the problem as early as 2012 and ordered an improvement plan to be established and improvements made. Some improvements were made, but fundamental problems continued from 2009 to 2017.

The path to becoming a whistleblower is really difficult, and it is only possible at the expense of oneself. But it must be done for the world, the country, the people (including workers), and future generations.

Some of the incidents you described date back more than 10 years. Why did you wait until 2022 to contact Newstapa with your concerns?

As someone who worked at Samsung and was in charge of environmental and safety, I was very hesitant to report internal mistakes.

I saw intolerable situations with Samsung – including unfair dismissals – and asked company officials to improve them. Although we asked, there was no improvement.

Did you face retaliation for warning your company of danger or speaking publicly?

Before I retired, I complained to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission in South Korea and the Office of the President about discriminatory policies such as unfair dismissal. 

When I retired, I was definitely isolated within the company and many of my colleagues have refused to speak with me.

There are thousands of safety managers worldwide working in companies that are causing health problems. Why do you think so few of them speak publicly about what they see?

It is not easy to disclose such matters to the outside world, because it is probably in part their own fault.

What advice would you give to people who work inside corporations and see health or environmental violations?

The path to becoming a whistleblower is really difficult, and it is only possible at the expense of oneself. But it must be done for the world, the country, the people (including workers), and future generations. It's a lonely road, but I was rewarded. It will help improve the global environment, and the company will establish a better working environment.

The Examination

Will Fitzgibbon

Will Fitzgibbon is a senior reporter and the global partnership coordinator for The Examination.

Oh Daeyang

Oh Daeyang is a reporter with Newstapa, South Korea's first nonprofit investigative journalism center.