French court indicts Samsung on labor rights violations

Posted on : 2019-07-04 17:59 KST Modified on : 2019-07-04 17:59 KST
First instance of European investigative authorities filing charges against electronics giant
A Samsung Electronics factory in Vietnam’s Bac Ninh Province. (Cho So-young
A Samsung Electronics factory in Vietnam’s Bac Ninh Province. (Cho So-young
Global Samsung
Global Samsung

A French court’s investigation of Samsung Electronics has culminated in charges being filed. The company is charged with making false claims about respecting the rights of workers at its Asian factories when it was in fact infringing those rights. This is the first time that investigative authorities in Europe have filed charges against Samsung that pertain to the overall labor environment. If the case goes to court, Samsung will have to directly address charges about exposing workers to chemicals, forcing them to work overtime, and breaking up labor unions, issues it has repeatedly refused to discuss.

The Hankyoreh learned that the High Court of Paris recently filed preliminary charges against the French branch of Samsung Electronics for violating the Consumer Act through deceptive commercial activity. Preliminary charges are filed when the court concludes that there’s considerable reason to believe that the charges are accurate but more investigation is necessary. While the case can still be closed after further investigation, the typical outcome is a formal trial. Renaud Van Ruymbeke, the investigating judge who decided to file preliminary charges, reportedly cited strong suspicions that the rights of workers aren’t being respected at Samsung factories. In France, judges attached to high courts are responsible for both carrying out the investigation and filing charges.

Last year, French NGOs Sherpa and ActionAid France filed a legal complaint to Samsung Electronics’ French operations and to its South Korean headquarters. According to these NGOs, Samsung was fraudulently claiming to consumers that it protected and advanced labor rights and human rights despite using child labor at Chinese factories and despite persistent cases of industrial accidents at its factories in South Korea and Vietnam.

“Samsung claims on its website and in its sustainable management report, among other places, that it ‘respects the rights of all workers’ and that it’s ‘in compliance with international standards and domestic laws.’ But the basic rights and human dignity of Samsung workers are being infringed, a fact that has been demonstrated by countless reports by international NGOs and the press,” the NGOs said in their written complaint. They submitted 87 reports and press reports to the court as corroborating evidence.

“We’re also planning to submit Hankyoreh reports about the recent labor situation at Samsung’s Asian factories to the court,” said Sandra Cossart, secretary-general of Sherpa.

It took six years after the first complaint was submitted for charges to be filed. These NGOs had previously filed complaints against Samsung in 2013 or 2016, but both times their complaints were dismissed or the case concluded without charges being filed.

“Until now, our complaints were dismissed on the grounds that the rights of workers must be dealt with separately from commercial activity and that, even if that activity was problematic, it would be the responsibility of the main office in South Korea. But the court has decided that such a viewpoint is no longer feasible. The French court has made a monumental decision,” said Clara Gonzales, an activist with Sherpa. Because of issues of jurisdiction, however, no charges were filed against Samsung’s main office.

Charges of deceptive commercial activity based on false or misleading advertising

The charges of deceptive commercial activity that the French court applied to Samsung are based on Article 112 of France’s Consumer Act. This article bans false or misleading advertising, which is defined broadly as any activity by which a company provides information about itself to consumers.

“In 2017, France made it a legal requirement for multinational companies to disclose their human rights record, but so far the French judiciary has never directly investigated the infringement of the rights of workers at the overseas factories of multinational companies. That’s why we looked for a roundabout method,” Cossart explained.

Moving forward, the French court is expected to launch its full-fledged investigation of the situation of labor conditions at Samsung’s factories in Asia. “We’re planning to use a court order to acquire documents, including the results of a recent audit that Samsung carried out at its factories in Vietnam,” Cossart said.

By Lee Jae-yeon, staff reporter

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