South Korea: land of the free?

The electronics giant is guilty of the most draconian persecution of its workforce.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Samsung, the South Korean-based multinational electronics giant that has achieved most recent notoriety for its exploding Galaxy S7 phones, has a less well-publicised history of trampling over the rights of the estimated million and a half workers who are, says an ITUC (International Trade Union Congress) report, “entrenched in a vast and shadowy web of subcontractors and subsidiaries that runs deep throughout the region”. (Samsung: end worker abuse and abolish your ‘no-union’ policy now, ITUC online petition)

Everything outside of Samsung’s core functions is contracted and subcontracted to a myriad subsidiaries, a circumstance which helps Samsung dodge any responsibility for the welfare of the vast majority of workers effectively in its employ, as for example when, in February and March this year, five workers were poisoned by methanol gas at a subcontracted company.

But whilst Samsung is keen to wash its hands of any responsibility for its ‘non-core’ workforce, it is happy enough to butt in when it’s a question of preventing workers at its subsidiaries, or at its suppliers, from getting unionised.

The experience of Kim Sung Hwan, the general secretary of the General Union of the Samsung Group (GUSG), is instructive. Fired in 1996 for his efforts to organise Samsung workers, Kim has suffered every form of persecution. He spent three years and ten months in jail on trumped-up charges, has had his phone tapped and been put under surveillance.

Nor is such persecution exceptional in the ‘free’ south of Korea. A 2016 report from the ITUC detailed the union-bashing measures employed by Samsung and its company goons throughout its operations. (Samsung – Modern Tech, Medieval Conditions, ITUC, 30 September 2016)

The report noted that a “115-page internal document of Samsung obtained in October 2013 showed Samsung’s plan to keep its companies and suppliers union-free. It discusses how to detect workers who are most likely to attempt to organise, how to monitor them and how to isolate and eventually thwart workers who exercise their rights to form a union.”

A leaked PowerPoint presentation aimed at senior management shows how this policy translates into practice: “countermeasures” are to be used to “dominate employees”, with managers encouraged to “isolate employees”, “punish leaders” and “induce internal conflicts”. In practice, those who continue to resist are likely to be hounded by the company, get their phones tapped, be followed home or suffer threats against themselves and their families.

Workers are coerced into working long hours of overtime, often unpaid, to the detriment of their health and family life. In the rush to get the Samsung Galaxy tablet into the shops, one worker testified that she “slept about two or three hours a night” and could only keep up with the schedule by giving up on breast-feeding her baby.

In addition to the long hours and the speed-up of production, many workers are exposed to harmful chemicals, with devastating effects on their health. A Seoul-based group working with people suffering illnesses associated with semi-conductor production has identified 223 workers who have suffered disorders such as leukaemia, brain tumours and multiple sclerosis. Of these, 76 have so far died; only 11 have received compensation.

Five lab workers who joined the company from the same school in their teens all went on to develop leukaemia in their early twenties; so far, one of them has passed away and three are bedridden.

The GUSG union, which Samsung still refuses to recognise, has set itself the task of mobilising the workers of all the Samsung subsidiaries, ignoring the convenient fiction that maintains that these are all ‘independent’ companies. Since these subsidiaries and suppliers operate beyond south Korea as well, the whole Asian electronics industry is thus drawn into the battle over unionisation.

This is a double-edged sword for capitalism: whilst Samsung is able to deploy armies of lawyers and bribe any number of public officials to achieve its union-bashing ends on an international scale, the precarious and international character of the supply chain also raises the possibility of a no less international wave of resistance, as workers learn to apply pressure at choke-points in the supply chain and internationalise the struggle.

Kim Sung Hwan is leading a delegation on a tour around Europe in December, including Britain, France and Germany, with the aim of publicising “the way in which the Samsung group has accumulated its capital” – ie, by the crudest and most brutal forms of exploitation imaginable. (For more on Samsung’s crimes against its workforce and the environment, see the Stop Samsung – No More Deaths website)