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RCA Taiwan assembly line workers gain bittersweet victory

Posted: 04 May 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:RCA? exposure? hazardous chemical? cancer?

A hard-earned triumph is now at the hands of former assembly line workers of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) when the Taipei District Court on April 17 decided to penalise the company for the employees who claim they are suffering from various types of cancer caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals while working at an RCA factory in Taoyuan, Taiwan, more than 40 years ago. Previously one of the world's biggest electronics companies, the defunct RCA has left a legacy of despair to the surviving workers who gained what could be considered as a bittersweet victory.

The case, Taiwan's first class-action suit, which may be appealed two more times, would set an important precedent, allowing groups of people to file claims against companies that have caused injury resulting from pollution and substandard working conditions.

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The court has ordered RCA to pay 445 of the surviving workers and their families roughly $18.31 million that they sought in damages. The former RCA employees filed suit in 2004 after more than 1,300 of the workers were diagnosed with various types of cancer. The amount of money awarded to those who survive is far less than what would be likely in Europe or North America, according to two lawyers contacted by EE Times.

The ex-assembly line workers haven't yet decided whether they will appeal for a larger amount of money.

The former workers, mostly women from poor families, say that without any warning or training from RCA, they were exposed to as many as 20 types of poisonous chemicals through skin contact, in the factory air they breathed and in the untreated ground water they drank while working in the RCA plant.

The workers say they are part of a tragedy behind Taiwan's much-vaunted economic miracle during the 1970s, when the government sought to transform the island's economy from agriculture to high value-added electronic products. RCA's operations in Taiwan ran from 1970-992, employing tens of thousands of people to make colour TVs.

Trichloroethylene and tetrachlorethylene were among the chemicals that RCA used and dumped in the aquifers below the RCA site. Years after the RCA factory was closed, Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) found levels of the chemicals in surrounding aquifers to exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) standards for drinking water by as much as 1000 times.

RCA factory workers used the organic solvents to clean PCBs that they assembled into colour TVs and other electronic products. They touched the chemicals with their hands in the manufacturing process and breathed the volatile solvents in the air of the factory, which had almost no ventilation, the workers stated.

Former RCA Taiwan workers

Former RCA Taiwan workers hold a banner stating "GE, RCA and Thomson poison workers."(Image: Alan Patterson)

Tragedy and triumph

While RCA was manufacturing colour TVs in Taiwan and contaminating the environment, it also transferred key semiconductor technology to Taiwan that led to the rise of the island's huge chip industry.

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