by Han-Hsi “Indy” Liu and Fangchun Chu

Photo Credit: RCA Family Magazine

Timeline of the Story: The RCA Factory in Taiwan

IN 1969, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), an international company from the developed world, chose Taiwan, a developing country which had lower wages but high quality labor, not to mention loose labor and environment regulations, to establish its new factory. RCA, an American company manufacturing television components, motherboards, and other electronic products, was welcomed by Taiwanese at that time, because of its international scale, advanced technology, well-known reputation, and the large number of employment opportunities it offered. Sadly, the famous company did not tell its employees that, during the process of manufacturing, large amount of dangerous chemical pollutants was used and later discharged into the air, water and ground of the RCA factory. The pollution has caused its employees to be exposed to severely toxic substances that seriously harmed their health. At least 62 employees died and 108 of them got cancer or other serious illnesses. Some female employees had miscarriages due to the pollution. 

In 1987, RCA was absorbed by GE, another American company and therefore the Taiwan RCA had become a subsidiary of GE. One year later, GE sold its consumer electronics department to Thomas, a French group. Taiwan RCA has been a subsidiary of Thomas until the present. During the process of mergers and acquisition, a thorough environmental assessment report of the Taiwan factory was undertaken and circulated within the companies; therefore, both GE and Thomas were fully aware of serious pollution in the factory environment.

In 1994, the scale of pollution was finally became known to the public in Taiwan and shortly thereafter became a nationwide scandal. Taiwan government began an investigation as well as restoration on the polluted earth and water. However, after 20 years of work, the site of the Taiwan RCA is still considered a seriously polluted site. 

In 1999, the suffering employees and their family had established an Association for RCA Victims and retained attorneys to file a provisional attachment in 2001. But they then realized that RCA Taiwan had transferred its property out of Taiwan for avoiding liability and compensation. Even so, in 2004, the Association still officially filed its class action against defendant companies to the cost of TWD 2.7 billion (USD $ 87,021,000). After 10 years of harsh fighting in the courts, on April 27, 2015, Taipei District Court made the historical ruling of a decision in favor of 529 suffering plaintiffs in this kind of environmental and labor class action. The Association was granted TWD 56,4450,000 (USD18,192,223) against Taiwan RCA and Thomas by the decision, though the defendants have chosen to appeal and the case is now pending in the high court.

Difficulties for Victimized Laborers to Pursue Justice under Globalization and Capitalism

AFTER THE PROBLEM of pollution was publicly disclosed, a problem facing by victim labors and their family is how to claim their compensation against these international companies. In fact, the Association for RCA Victims had tried to file a lawsuit in the United States against the company first, after knowing the companies tried to transfer its money and property abroad. However, it is very costly in terms of both time and money to initiate a transnational litigation, especially when most critical evidence is on the defendants’ side. In the end, the Association did not succeed in filing the lawsuit abroad.

image2Association for RCA Victims members gathered in front of the Taipei District Court after the winning decision announced. Photo credit: Hongru Liang, provided by Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation

In 2004, the Association again filed a lawsuit in Taiwan. This time, after more than 10 years of an extremely hard fight in court, the Association finally achieved a partial victory in 2015. It has already more than 10 years and many victims have passed away due to illness. The litigation has already shown how many difficulties the plaintiff have to overcome, as is generally the case with plaintiffs in environmental or labor civil actions. Hurdles such as getting sufficient evidence to scientifically prove the causation between pollution and sickness, overcoming legal tactics from the defendants like the statute of limitation or liability among affiliated enterprises, are all difficult obstacles for the vulnerable, sick and old victimized laborers to tackle and overcome, unless there are helps from outside experts in the relevant fields and from relevant government authorities. On the contrary, international companies have a variety of methods, including shifting entity and liability through mergers and acquisition, using BVI and paper companies to burden the plaintiff, and transmitting money and property aboard to get rid of their responsibility and ability to pay. Never mind that international companies usually have the resources and money to hire expensive experts and attorneys to argue in favor of them in the court. In this case, the facts that labor authority in Taiwan did not become involved and help victim labor to fight against the international companies in the earlier stage also led to obstacles for victimized laborers to seek justice.

Global Citizens Should Jointly Fight Against Polluting International Companies

IN THE CURRENT system of capitalism under conditions of globalization, international companies tend to locate their factories in countries with cheap labor, low priced land, and loose environmental and labor regulations. In order to protect vulnerable people continually from the exploitation of international companies, people around the world should unite together as global citizens to fight against unethical and even illegal behavior from international companies. People can boycott the products from such international companies, and support victimized laborers in their fight for justice, and to circulate the facts for more people to know. Government authorities should enforce their labor inspections and pollution detection, and request international companies to comply with their environmental and labor regulations and standards. Inter-governmental cooperation should also be carried out for transnational enforcement. After all, the social cost from international companies’ infringements to both people and environment can be far higher than later compensation is able to cover. 

Han-Hsi “Indy” Liu is S.J.D. candidate of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, focusing on global health and human rights. He is also licensed as attorney-at-law in Taiwan.

Fangchun Chu is a Taiwanese lawyer working for the Legal Aid Foundation in Taiwan since 2007. She is one of the attorneys-at-law representing victims of RCA pollution in the litigation.

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