Taiwanese workers who used to make televisions and semiconductors for a US-owned factory told officials in Washington last week that employees at the plant suffered illnesses because they were unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals.
More than 200 employees of a former Radio Corporation of America (RCA) facility in Taiwan's northern county of Taoyuan died, and about 1,500 still suffer from cancer, said the workers, who have toured the United States for the past two weeks.
The workers told IPS they were regularly exposed to perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), industrial solvents that scientists say are possible carcinogens.
"We were never given any kind of protective gear or told that these chemicals were toxic," said Wu Chih-Kang, who worked at the RCA facility for 18 years. He said his managers commonly told employees to dump the chemicals into the soil, down a well, or down the drain.
Richard Knoph, a spokesperson for RCA's current owner, Thomson Multimedia of France, denied any correlation between the workers' illnesses and the facility. He pointed to scientific studies conducted by the Taiwan government that showed no link between health impacts and contamination at the site.
While on their two-week visit to the United States, the group of workers met lawmakers, officials at the US Department of Labour, and representatives of various labour and environmental organisations. The group said it was also talking to lawyers about potential lawsuits in the United States.
US environmentalists who met the workers said that the contamination at the former RCA plant might be one of the largest cases of worker poisoning.
"This is one of the most serious contamination sites and one of the worst cases of global corporate irresponsibility that has been uncovered," said Ted Smith, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a California-based environmental advocacy group that helped coordinate the group's visit.
The RCA plant operated for more than two decades before it closed down in 1991. General Electric bought RCA in 1986 and sold it a year later to Thomson.
About 100,000 workers were employed at the plant during its 23 years of operation. Many left after only a few days because the fumes in the factory were so strong, said Wu and his colleagues.
Workers were paid about US$50 per month, a good salary at the time, and many employees were glad to be there. Most of the workers at the plant were women between the ages of 18 and 40, said the group.
The Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency declared the facility a toxic site in 1998 because the ground and water were severely contaminated by toxic chemicals including PCE and TCE. General Electric and Thomson have since spent millions of dollars to clean up contaminated soil at the facility, said GE spokesperson Gary Sheffer.
"There is still groundwater contamination at the site, but nobody uses the groundwater" because GE installed municipal water treatment facilities for neighbouring communities, said Sheffer.
He said there was no firm evidence linking workers' illnesses with exposure to chemicals at the plant. In March, the Taiwan Labour Affairs Council released the results of a three-year study that found no increased risk of cancer among the workers, said Sheffer.
The workers, however, said there must be a link and that the companies should be held accountable.
"So many girls and women have had miscarriages, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and uterine cancer," said Liang Ko-Ping, who worked 20 years for RCA making television sets.
"This was not normal," added Liang, who heads an association of former RCA workers seeking compensation.
One of these women was Wu's wife, whom he met while working at the RCA factory. She gave birth to a stillborn child and in 1997 was diagnosed with uterine cancer, he said. She had successful surgery but still receives treatment, said Wu, who also had a tumour removed.
"Now, I'm living in fear that some other illness will appear," he said through a translator.
Chang Ya-Ting, an activist with the Taipei-based Taiwan Association of Victims of Occupational Injuries (TAVOI), said that the study Sheffer cited did not involve a thorough investigation of the health of workers still living.
She pointed to a study by the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and Taiwan's National University College of Public Health that found a significant increase in the death rate for breast and ovarian cancer in female workers at the plant.
Chang said her organisation has been working to get the Taiwan government to get GE to clean up the remaining water contamination and compensate the injured workers.
"There are many laws in Taiwan that do not provide enough protection for workers like those at the former RCA plant," she said.
In April, the government enacted the Occupational Disease Protection Act, which provides compensation to workers for illnesses proven to be attributed to working conditions, after years of pressure from labour unions and organisations. It was not clear how this law would impact the claims against RCA.