2024 July 2

Electronics Watch statement on the tragic lithium battery factory fire in South Korea

The terrible fire of 24 June at the Aricell lithium battery factory in Hwaseong, South Korea, is a tragic reminder of the cost workers pay to provide the world with electronic devices. At least 23 workers have been killed, and many others injured.

Lithium batteries power smartphones, electric vehicles and many other products, and the risks involved in their manufacture are well known. Lithium is highly flammable. Should it catch fire, it emits toxic smoke and cannot be extinguished with water. According to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the risk of lithium battery explosions has been raised repeatedly, but workplaces that produce and handle them still do not have adequate countermeasures in place to protect workers.

A majority of those who died in the Aricell disaster were migrant workers, 17 of whom were from China, and one from Laos. Five South Koreans also lost their lives. The electronics industry relies heavily on migrant workers with short-term, temporary contracts who are often paid significantly less than local workers.

KCTU reports that less than half of Aricell's 100 strong workforce had been registered with the Ministry of Labour as full-time workers, meaning the factory could avoid appointing a safety manager as required for all businesses that handle chemicals and have more than 50 staff. Workers on daily or short-term contracts can face inadequate safety training, and often do not work long enough in a single factory to become familiar with its layout, emergency exits and evacuation routes.

While the exact cause of the fire at Aricell is not yet known, it is reported to have started after a series of battery explosions. The speed with which it took hold is typical of lithium fires, underlining the importance of health and safety training for workers. KCTU has expressed concern that Aricell's multi-tier subcontracting and use of dispatch and daily workers makes accountability more difficult to establish, and risks creating health and safety management blindspots.

In a statement about the disaster, the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV) condemned Aricell's "gross negligence and violation of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) rights." They call on the South Korean government to enforce its Serious Disaster Punishment Law, and ensure the company is held accountable.  Electronics Watch is an ANROEV member.

Electronics Watch uses public procurement leverage to promote and protect workers' rights. We recently published a set of tender criteria and corresponding guidance to help public buyers procure batteries in a socially responsible way. Socially responsible public procurement helps to create demand for adequate OHS standards, mitigating the risk of such disasters.

Electronics Watch grieves for the victims of this disaster and their families, and stands in solidarity with all workers exposed to workplace hazards and exploitation. We add our voice to those of South Korean trade unions in calling for stricter health and safety standards in the industry, and better enforcement.

Human beings are not expendable. The increasing global demand for lithium batteries should not come at the expense of the health, wellbeing, or lives of workers.