[Special report- Part III] Curses, verbal abuse, and impossible quotas

Posted on : 2019-06-24 17:13 KST Modified on : 2019-06-24 17:13 KST
Workers at Samsung’s overseas factories barely have enough time to sleep or eat
 Hankyoreh TV producer)
Hankyoreh TV producer)
Cursing and shouting

Mohamadi (all names have been changed to pseudonyms), a 22-year-old contract worker at a Samsung Electronics factory in the Indonesian town of Cikarang, works on his feet for 12 straight hours a day. The local managers shout insults like “idiot” and “useless” daily, as if to shame the employees, he said. Meeting with the Hankyoreh near the factory on May 15, Mohamadi seemed pained even to think about the cursing.

Commuter buses that transport workers are lined up outside a Samsung factory in Vietnam’s Bac Ninh Province. (Cho So-young
Commuter buses that transport workers are lined up outside a Samsung factory in Vietnam’s Bac Ninh Province. (Cho So-young

“It happens every day, and every day it’s humiliating,” he said. The day before, it had been one line of 30 people; now it was the other line of 22 being told, “If this is the kind of work you’re going to do, you should all quit. There are a lot of people ready to take your place.”

The manager claimed that while workers were not allowed to take calls or rest, they could use the bathroom. These were just words; no workers could feel at ease using the bathroom when they could work nonstop all day and still have difficulty meeting their quotas. A vicious cycle would repeat itself as unmet volumes were transferred over to the next day, eventually forcing the employees to work over the weekend.

Samsung Electronics workers recalled the factory as a place where they lived “in terror of being shouted at.” Prakash, a 22-year-old former trainee at a factory in the Indian city of Noida, was asked if he remembered any words in Korean. Before the question was even finished, he cried out, “Ppalli, ppalli” – meaning “quickly, quickly.”

If workers tried to step back from the line or sit down even for a moment, managers would shout, “Get back to work right now,” he said.

“Before I went to work there, they definitely said we’d be given a break every two hours. In reality, we had one break at 10:10 am when we were drinking chai, and almost no rest time at all in the afternoon,” Prakash recalled.

For Chitwan, a 21-year-old Indian man, Samsung was a dream job. But when he actually went to work at its factory, he had no time for dreams. Since quitting Samsung, Chitwan lives in Anupedra, a rural village nine hours by train from India’s capital New Delhi. He traveled all the way to Delhi to speak to the Hankyoreh. “There’s something I need to say about Samsung,” he explained.

From August to November 2018, Chitwan worked on the main line making basic Galaxy smartphones at the Samsung Electronics factory in Noida. One day he had a fever and could not turn his neck. After reporting to work the next morning, he went to see the manager. “I haven’t been able to turn my head since yesterday. I’d like to just work eight hours today,” he said.

“You meet your target before going home, or you can quit right now,” the local manager snapped back.

As he strained his stiff neck to see the electronic display, a light went on to signal that the per capita production quota was set at 1,600 units. The light would only go off if the workers assembled Galaxy mobile phones – known as the factory code “1200” among workers – at a rate of one every 13 seconds for 12 straight hours. Even after working that hard, his payment still fell below the minimum wage due to his “probationary” status. The Samsung factory he experienced was a place where people worked until they were sick or were let go through contract terminations. Samsung was not the kind of company a person could work at for long.

Anup, 21, quit the Noida factory after working there as a trainee until 2017.

“I’ve been working at a different electronics company since quitting Samsung, but I don’t do as much work or get yelled at like I did at Samsung,” he said.

“When I tell my friends who work at places like Sony or Tata Motors about the working environment and intensity of Samsung factories, they tell me, ‘That’s ridiculous.’” he shrugged.

In its “Sustainable Management Report 2018,” Samsung Electronics claimed that “harassment of employees” was “strictly banned.” Regarding human rights policies and the management system, the report added, “We comply with the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) code of conduct as an RBA member company.” The RBA code of conduct states, “There is to be no harsh and inhumane treatment including any sexual harassment, sexual abuse, corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion or verbal abuse of workers; nor is there to be the threat of any such treatment.” Yet numerous reports throughout Asia revealed experiences that harshly contradict Samsung’s official claims.

 Hankyoreh TV producer)
Hankyoreh TV producer)

Takt time

The Samsung factory workers who spoke to the Hankyoreh worked not on the basis of the eight-hour day stipulated by labor law in their respective countries, but on “takt times” (the amount of time needed to produce a single item) set individually by the factories. Takt times are the reason the workdays at Samsung factories are fraught with the fear of being screamed at. A worker producing old Galaxy models at the Noida factory has to assemble 1,600 of them a day. Experts have described the management of these takt times as the secret behind Samsung’s ability to hold on to its first-place status worldwide in semiconductors and mobile phones. In semiconductor and mobile phone manufacturing, the main process is one of simple, labor-intensive assembly, where a single worker is assigned to a small component and items are produced without workers moving around. In labor-intensive industries, takt times yield dramatic results.

In front of the workers, an electronic display acts as a real-time goad, listing the number and time; behind them, a manager bellows, keeping them on edge with auditory tension. Samsung’s ability to remain a world-class business in the semiconductor and mobile phone industries cannot be accounted for through technology alone. Experts have concluded that the company’s dominance owes itself to a mass production system where items are produced cheaply through labor exploitation.

Twenty-one-year old Anup explained, “We’d be assigned an assembly quota of 1,600 to 1,700 mobile phones a day by a bellowing manager, and we couldn’t think about anything except working to the rhythm of the number dropping on the display.” In a year spent working at the factory, Anup never took a day off; he was hoping to attract the manager’s notice and be promoted to a regular position. Around 5% of trainees go on to regular worker status, which translates into less overtime and various allowances and benefits. Take-home pay can be as much as three times higher. Managers would routinely say, “If you work hard and don’t miss a day, you can become a regular worker.” After leaving the job, Anup said, he “realized that my dream of being a ‘Samsung man’ who went to work on a blue leash had changed from my younger days, when I could put with unsustainably extreme work.” When asked if he could see himself going back to Samsung, he shook his head forcefully.

“No, I wouldn’t do that,” he said.

In 2013, Samsung was sued in Brazil for 250 million real in damages (US$64.7 million) by labor prosecutors for allegedly forcing employees to work overtime through excessive takt time management. It subsequently settled with the Brazilian government, paying a fine equivalent to US$1.11 million and vowing “not to engage in any actions contracting to the workers’ intentions, including overtime.” Takt times at the Samsung factory in Brazil amounted to 32.7 seconds for ordinary mobile phones and two minutes for smartphones; in Vietnam and India, these were cut to 13–14 seconds and around one minute, respectively. Samsung has revealed an even harsher face in Asia, where protections on worker rights are feeble.

 India. (Cho So-young
India. (Cho So-young
Commuter buses and dormitories

Samsung’s management of takt time doesn’t end inside the factory. The commuter buses and dormitories, which are billed as benefits for workers, play a key role in this.

Dyuen, 21, who works at the Samsung Electronics factory in Bac Ninh Province, Vietnam, and Modi, 21, who works at the factory in Noida, India, leave their home at 6:30 am and board the commuter bus at 7 am. Since both the Bac Ninh and Noida factories are located about 40 or 50 minutes away from their respective capitals, the Samsung bus is the only way to get to and from work. The Samsung bus only stops at dedicated points along the route, at fixed times in the early morning and evening. For the workers who have to commute on the Samsung bus, their lives are defined by the bus schedule. Even if they’ve finished their allotted work, they can’t leave the factory until the bus does. This system makes it impossible to arrive late or leave early. “Team members move as a unit. You can’t move on your own, and if there’s extra time, we do extra work,” Dyuen said.

According to a 2017 report by a research institute for a labor group in Vietnam about working conditions at Samsung Electronics’ factories in the country, the commuter buses represent “a unique system that several other multinational companies are beginning to adopt in emulation of Samsung. Since the workers rely on the commuter buses for their transportation, they have to keep working until the bus departs even if they finish their quota early. There isn’t much else to do at the factory, and that’s the only way they can make a little extra money. This is a very cruel way of forcing workers to submit to the system and a mechanism of robbing them of their imagination.”

The dormitory is a controlled space that’s monitored 24 hours a day. “Workers on different shifts sleep in the same room at the dormitory. When you get back after work, someone is already resting there, so you have no choice but to be quiet,” said a Samsung worker that reporters met at the Bac Ninh factory. Security cameras run around the clock in common areas. “Samsung has an important reason for placing priority on hiring people from different regions, who have to stay at its dormitory. The Samsung dormitory is part of the bigger picture of completely controlling workers’ time in order to maximize the efficiency of production. By making workers dependent on the company for their housing, Samsung prevents them from even thinking about resistance,” the labor research institute said.

Samsung workers and people who live near the factory said that the company prefers workers from distant areas, who are compelled to use its commuter buses and dormitories. “Samsung doesn’t hire people from Bac Ninh who live near the factory. Bac Ninh can’t get jobs there,” said a local who runs a street stall in front of the factory where workers often congregate.

Soaring profits, crawling wages

Workers at the Samsung factories in these three factories in Asia dedicate all their time, and indeed their lives, to the company while receiving wages that are barely above, and sometimes below, the local minimum wage. Samsung hires people in their late teens or early 20s — young people who are unlikely to get sick or contract a disease — and keeps them around for only a short time before letting them go. Probationary workers in India only received 8,400 rupees (US$120.72) in average monthly wages. That was much less than the 15,400 rupees (US$221.19) minimum wage that semi-skilled workers are supposed to make each month.

Dyuen in Vietnam and Modi in India, both of whom come from regions that are hundreds of kilometers from the Samsung factory, live among their coworkers. As a probationary worker, Modi makes 9,000 rupees (US$129.26) a month, including overtime pay, which would barely be enough to rent a room without a bed by himself. He and two coworkers pitch in to cover their monthly rent of 5,000 rupees (US$71.81). After Modi leaves for work, a colleague returns from a double shift and goes to sleep in the same spot where Modi slept earlier. While Modi is tiredly getting ready for work in the morning, he sometimes recalls how the Samsung interviewer asked him what his father does and about his family’s financial situation. Modi thinks he was hired because someone at his level of poverty is likely to be desperate for a job.

Job ads for a Samsung factory in Noida
Job ads for a Samsung factory in Noida

“Samsungification” of labor

“Samsung’s management style is fueling a ‘race to the bottom’ among multinational corporations,” asserted a spokesperson for an international labor organization that reporters met in Hanoi, Vietnam. “There’s a common factor in the areas where Samsung operates. When a Samsung factory goes up, it sets a new low, globally speaking. The key of Samsung’s business practice is maintaining a disciplined workforce and providing the bare minimum required by local laws.”

“From an international perspective, this process ought to be called the ‘Samsungification’ of labor. Samsung only moves into countries where it can treat workers poorly,” the spokesperson also said. This represents an old-fashioned management strategy that views workers as being cheap, and without rights. Management practices that were widespread in South Korea during the 1970s and 1980s are now being applied in developing countries.

In 2018, Samsung Electronics had 243.77 trillion won (US$207.41 billion) in turnover and 58.89 trillion won (US$50.11 billion) in operating profits. It posted 100.68 trillion won (US$85.66 billion) in revenue from its mobile phone division and 86.29 trillion won (US$73.41 billion) from its semiconductor division. But even today, some workers at Samsung factories are so poor that they have to skip dinner.

“We need a global concept that can explain the exploitation and disparity that Samsung is creating,” said a labor activist who spoke with reporters in Indonesia. The global wealth and power that Samsung enjoys comes with a price: the sweat, tears, and souls of young Asian workers.

By Kim Wan, Ock Kee-won, and Lee Jae-yeon, staff reporters from India, Vietnam, and Indonesia

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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