SEOUL. Outcries from more than 700 hundred workers and unionists clashed against the steel walls of the Samsung Electronics Headquarter building. Teargas was sprinkling like rain from the sky, as just as many police officers were trying to keep control of the angry crowd. Their demands were clear. They wanted Samsung Electronics to stop harassing workers, who try to unionise. The workers wanted rights.
The demonstration took place in May 2014 and a few days earlier, 16th of May, the 34- year old, Yeom HoSeok, lit fire to a small pile of charcoal at the bottom of his car and awaited the toxic fumes to take him away from his life. In a farewell letter to his parents, he wrote: “I can no longer sit by as more sacrifices and more pain are wrought upon our unionists”.
Suicide in the electronics industry is not a new phenomenon. In 2008, a 26-year old female engineer from a Nokia factory in India hung herself because of harassment from her managers. In 2010, fourteen workers at Apple’s factories took their own life, and at Samsung Electronics, Yeom HoSeok is the latest in a line of workers, who are willing to dedicate their death to the struggle for labour rights.
When workers die for rights
Following Apple, Samsung is the second biggest brand in tablet and mobile phone manufacturing according to business magazine Forbes with a 22,5% market share of global tablet production in 2014. In addition to this, Samsung Electronics is the second biggest supplier of microchips used in tablets and mobile phones according to an IHS ranking in 2013. This means, if you have an Ipad or an Iphone, it is likely to hold a chip from Samsung.
More than 90.000 South Koreans are employed by Samsung in South Korea alone, and according to Samsung Electronics, ‘the company takes great care to provide a workplace environment with the highest industry standards of health, safety and welfare’.
“We remain steadfastly committed to all labour and human rights laws of the countries in which we operate”, the company writes in an email to DanWatch.
Still, allegations from current and previous workers, NGOs and lawyers tell another story of harassment for attempts of unionizing, so called union busting.
No need to unionise
Samsung Electronics has a long tradition for preventing unions. Since the foundation of the company in 1938 by Lee Byung-chul there has been a strict no-union-policy.
In 1977, when female workers at a plant in Gimpo tried to form a union, Lee Byung-chul was famous for saying: “I will never permit a union! Over my dead body!”
Instead, he told the company to create good working conditions so that workers would never feel the necessity to organise themselves.
A strategy Samsung Electronics has maintained until today. In the 2013 Samsung Sustainability Report it says, that the company ‘strives to provide superior working conditions (…) so that employees do not feel the need for a labour union’.
Recently, an alleged internal Samsung document,‘S group worker management Manual’, which describes policy and practises involved in Samsungs ‘no-union-policy’ was leaked.
In terms like ‘the dissolution of unionization movement’ by employment of ‘the union-response strategy and tactics’, it is explained, how Samsung management respond to laborers efforts to form unions.
The company is listening
Some workers who have tried to unionise talk about multiple meetings with their management that usually results in promotions or threats of degradation. Or the risk of losing their job. Should the workers not seize their unionization efforts, the HR department in Samsung sets in. Wiretapping and shadowing of workers in and outside working hours in order to prevent them from forming a union is not uncommon, says a former high ranking employee in a Samsung Electronics HR Department, who in detail – anonymously – describes his participation in several attempts of union busting.
“The workers were watched for 24 hours. An observing vehicle was assigned on them, and we were also watching from higher plane using telescope. At dawn, five vehicles were awaiting order in a specific area. Starting from the workers’ front door to the expressway, vehicle observing points were assigned, so we could monitor the workers every movement. This was common practise, it would drive them insane”
This was in 2007, but the procedure of surveillance and wiretapping is confirmed by a current employee, Mr Sang su-Kim, who has been trying to form a union in Samsung from 20011-2013.Mr Sang su-Kim is not his real name, and he is clearly afraid of the consequences of talking to journalists. The 54-year old engineer has been working for Samsung since 1987 and through this period seen the failure of several attempts by workers to unionise.
“I have been followed by someone assigned by the company to watch me. Every time we try to meet, management staff will be waiting outside my house to try and prevent me from going by either delaying or physically blocking me”, he says quietly.
“My phone has been tapped, which I am sure it still is”.
The allegations about wiretapping and shadowing are ‘not true’, according to Samsung Electronics.
“We respect union activities under the laws and regulations of the Republic of Korea, and we are committed to complying with the laws and regulations in countries, where we operate”, Samsung Electronics states in an email to DanWatch.
The Republic of Samsung
A common nickname for South Korea is ‘The Republic of Samsung’, which describes the national pride and influence the conglomerate holds in addition to being responsible for more than 20% of South Korea’s export.
Unionizing is legal in South Korea but difficult in a society that favours conglomerates, says the 31-year old attorney, Mr Ha Kyung Ryng, who is providing legal counseling to workers trying to form unions in Samsung Electronics.
“There is a lot of interference from the company: penalties if you join the union, threats of being fired, threats if you participate in union activities or protests. A one-person protest is legal in Korea, but all the security guards from Samsung come down and block them, they show them away and they beat them, and the police do nothing”, says Mr Ha Kyung Ryng.
South Korea has never ratified the ILO conventions, ‘Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise’ or ‘Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining’.
This means, the right to strike is limited and strikes considered illegal by authorities are punishable with large fines.
A small step towards rights
Outside the Samsung Electronics HQ in May, the protests from mourning union members of the death of Yeom HoSeok continued for three days. The three day period is how long a korean funeral takes.
Yeom HoSeok was hired on a contract basis for Samsung Electronics Service, and he was also helping his co-workers form a union in Busan-Yangsan.
According to union members and friends of Yeom HoSeok, management had substantially reduced assignments for him, and by the time of his suicide he earned $400 (294 euro) a month in a country with a average monthly wage for an engineer of $3083 (2308 euro). Yeom HoSeok felt he was being harassed by his company because of his union activity.
According to Korean media, the demonstrations continued for 41 days until 28th of June, where Samsung Electronics Service workers seemed to reach a tentative agreement with management on wage, working conditions and unionisation.
Chong Hyewon, Executive Director of the International Department at the Korean Metal Workers Union which represents the protesting workers, welcomed the agreement.
“This struggle is historic in that it represents the first time a mass-organised union of Samsung workers has achieved a collectively bargained framework agreement for trade union recognition and working conditions at Samsung, creating a fissure in Samsung’s 76-year ‘no union’ corporate policy”.