by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Brian Hioe
THE SUPREME COURT reversed a prior decision by the High Court last week, awarding damages to 222 former Radio Corporation of America (RCA) workers for exposure to hazardous chemicals. As such, the case has been sent back to the High Court.
The ruling reverses a 2020 decision by the High Court in March 2020 that only awarded damages to 24 of 246 plaintiffs, a total amount consisting of 54.7 million NT. In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated that the previous High Court ruling was problematic, in that it decided against RCA workers because they could not demonstrate a causal link between illnesses and pollution from their work at RCA.
Historically speaking, the RCA Taiwan case is one of Taiwan’s major-class action lawsuits, as well as significant labor struggles. RCA, an American company, set up a factory in Taoyuan in 1969 in order to manufacture electronic products such as television components and motherboards, taking advantage of lax safety regulations and cheap labor costs in Taiwan.
However, chemical pollutants from the plant were discharged into the air, water supply, and soil around the factory, and the health of workers was affected by chemicals from the factory. Depending on how one counts diseases, workers suffer from 31 to 38 diseases. Illnesses suffered by workers were serious, including cancer and miscarriages. 62 employees died and 108 had cancer. Over two decades later, the site of the RCA Taiwan factory is still considered a heavily polluted area.
Photo credit: RCA Family Magazine
It was due to the hundreds of involved plaintiffs, as well as the large number of illnesses suffered by former RCA workers, that the decision was made to pursue a series of class-action lawsuits. In this way, the settlement would be divided among workers themselves, rather than individually pursuing a settlement for every worker. Some have termed the case Taiwan’s first class-action lawsuit, in part because the RCA struggle has gone on for so many decades. The first class-action lawsuit began in 2005, involving 508 workers, and the second began in 2015, involving 1,120 workers. A third lawsuit is possible if there are affected RCA workers who were not included in the first two lawsuits.
A 2015 ruling was in favor of the 508 workers in the first class-action lawsuit. The High Court ruled in 2017 that RCA will need to pay 718.4 million NTD to RCA workers and their families, including the family members of deceased RCA members. Nevertheless, this was still far from the 5.5 billion NT that workers requested. The 222 former workers and their surviving family are from the second lawsuit.
In recollections by workers, suspicious behavior by the RCA management suggests that they were aware of the pollution, such as their drinking bottled water rather than water from the plant. Environmental assessments made by RCA in the 1980s also suggest that the company management was aware of the issue.
More generally, RCA has been accused of transferring assets out of Taiwan through shell companies, and it has proved difficult for lawyers to navigate through the complex web of shell companies used by RCA. The decision was made by lawyers to not only target RCA Taiwan due to its possible inability to pay, with then-owner General Electric also added to the list of responsible entities. RCA sometimes feigned ignorance or did not make court appearances. Insurance records show that RCA spent 210 million NT fighting the case, however.
As is commonly the case for labor disputes in Taiwan, RCA workers formed a self-help organization in order to organize. They were also provided with pro bono legal assistance by lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation, although the case actually predates the foundation’s formation. During the previous ruling, lawyers were critical of what they termed to be procedural errors from the case, and a failure to adequately question experts sent by RCA. More generally, RCA workers and the lawyers assisting them have been outgunned by the superior legal resources held by RCA.
Although the Supreme Court ruling is no doubt a welcome development, that the case has involved so many legal contortions still illustrates larger, structural issues at work. Furthermore, it bears keeping in mind that questions of justice are still not resolved for some RCA workers.