[Special report- Part V] Samsung has come under fire worldwide for its union-busting tactics

Posted on : 2019-06-26 17:05 KST Modified on : 2019-06-26 17:05 KST
An in-depth look at the electronics giant’s anti-union policies and strategies
Samsung‘s overseas violations of labor laws
Samsung‘s overseas violations of labor laws
A demonstrator protesting Samsung’s attempts to dismantle the union sustains a head injury after being attacked by hired thugs in November 2012. (provided by the FSPMI)
A demonstrator protesting Samsung’s attempts to dismantle the union sustains a head injury after being attacked by hired thugs in November 2012. (provided by the FSPMI)

“Close monitoring of problem employee (MJ).”

“Dismiss ringleaders at time of union establishment and create ‘loyalist union’ to prevent spreading.”

“Use all available means to achieve goal, including exploiting domestic troubles (divorce) and financial issues.”

These elements of Samsung’s union busting strategy were revealed in “basic labor-management relations guidelines” drafted in 1989, an “S Group labor-management strategy” from 2012, and an “organization stabilization plan” from 2014. In South Korea, Samsung has used various unlawful means to maintain its “union-free workplace” policy, including surveillance and shadowing, violence, intimidation, and dismissals. Its overseas factories have been no exception. Samsung’s union busting measures were frequently observed wherever the corporation had branched out – and have been a source of ongoing friction.

In April, the Hankyoreh began an investigation into whether the freedom to associate – in terms of union establishment and freedom of activities – was being guaranteed at Samsung Electronics’ overseas factories.

The Samsung Electronics factory in Vietnam’s Bac Ninh Province. (Cho So-young
The Samsung Electronics factory in Vietnam’s Bac Ninh Province. (Cho So-young

Tracking down “problem employees,” controlling social media

Even outside of South Korea, Samsung has been focusing its resources on curbing potential collective action by workers. Workers who spoke to the Hankyoreh in mid-May in front of the Samsung Electronics factory in Bac Ninh Province, Vietnam, said the human resource department “even controls our social media.”

“There have been cases where workers have been called by the manager and questioned on why they posted critical messages about the company,” said one worker. “We’re told [by the managers] to report any posts critical of the company as soon as they go up.”

Even the smallest examples of collective action were met with reprisals. According to a Vietnamese expert in labor issues, around four members of a production line group at the Bac Ninh factory were dismissed one after the other in 2014 after protesting to their manager over the high intensity of their work. In the beginning, they were only given disciplinary action, but after they refused to sign an oath not to protest again, they were let go, the expert said.

The tactics used to track down and punish “problem employees” seen as likely to create unions were the same as those used in South Korea. Chander Wati, 41, worked at the Noida factory in India for 14 years.

“I was fired for attempting to form a union,” Wati said.

“I received a text from a coworker who said they were going to ‘strike tomorrow and demonstrate outside the factory.’ I passed the text along to another coworker, and the manager questioned me on whether I was a union ‘leader’ and told me to write a letter of resignation,” he explained.

“I said I was being unfairly accused, but I was ultimately let go. I received my termination notice on Feb. 9, 2011,” he continued. Wati is currently pursuing legal action against Samsung for unjust dismissal.

 Hankyoreh TV producer)
Hankyoreh TV producer)

In Vietnam, the Communist Party is the union

Samsung Electronics’ factories in the Vietnamese provinces of Bac Ninh and Thai Nguyen were effectively union-free workplaces. There was a group that claimed to be the union, but it was more collaborative with the company than the workers. According to Vietnamese labor law, workers are required to join the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), the country’s sole national trade union center. The Samsung union was a member of this center. With the Constitution stating that the VGCL chairperson must be a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, Vietnam’s unions do not function in practice as groups representing workers’ positions.

“Samsung’s argument is that there don’t need to be multiple unions because there is already a company-friendly one,” said a Vietnamese labor group official speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Samsung can control workers’ voices as long as it maintains a good relationship with the Communist Party. It borders on a no-union situation.”

“Union-free workplace” policy also forced on subcontractors

Subcontractors were no exception to Samsung’s policy against unions. Around 2012, 17 Samsung subcontractors in Indonesia (out of an estimated 80 total) joined the Federation of Indonesia Metal Workers Union (FSPMI) while demanding better treatment. The bid collapsed under pressure from Samsung.

Ismail, the director of the FSPMI’s education and organization bureau, observed the process of the union’s establishment and destruction.

“Samsung sent notices to the presidents of its subcontractors demanding that they fire the union members and eliminate the union. They went on to retaliate using means such as cutting off volumes or recalling machinery that Samsung had supplied,” he explained.

In some cases, Samsung managers visited union members employed by subcontractors and gave them money to quit the union. Most of the workplace either eliminated their union within one to two years of its formation or had their subcontracting orders cut off and were forced to close down. Today, not a single labor union in a Samsung subcontractor is affiliated with the FSPMI.

Actions to disrupt union establishment and destroy existing unions are in violation of labor law in most countries around the world. They also violate the Freedom of Association Convention, one of the International Labour Organization’s core conventions. In its sustainability report, Samsung repeated maintained that it would guarantee freedom of association at overseas workplaces.

Sued in Thailand, Hungary, Malaysia, and even Germany

Samsung’s union-busting history at its overseas factories is not a short one. The incident that first brought Samsung’s policy against unions to global attention came in 1995 when the establishment of an employees’ council at Samsung Electronics’ German branch was sabotaged. According to the Trade, Banks, and Insurances Union (HBV), an industry-based union in Germany, reports that an employees’ council was being formed as a labor-management conference group at the German branch prompted a vice president at the South Korean head office – identified by the surname Noh – to send a message to the branch threatening to “close the branch down if the council is established.” Five workers who had spearheaded the council’s establishment were dismissed. But Samsung subsequently faced a suit before Germany’s Federal Labour Court, which ruled that it had to provide guarantees for the council’s creation.

Even after the international humiliation, Samsung pressed on with its union-free workplace policy. When the Malaysian Electrical Industry Workers’ Union (EIWU) announced the establishment of a Samsung Electronics union in June 1999, South Korean managers went around collecting signatures from members promising to leave the union. The union establishment bid eventually collapsed when the Malaysian trade union office reached the farcical conclusion that the Samsung Electronics union could not be a member of the EIWU because Samsung Electronics was part of the “electronics industry.” The union believes Samsung pressured the government into making a decision in its favor. At the Thai branch of Samsung Electro-Mechanics, workers attempted to form a union in 2005 to protest the demerger; Samsung neutralized it by dismissing seven representatives. At a Samsung Electronics factory in Hungary, efforts have been made since the 1990s to establish a workplace council centering on irregular workers, but have failed to come to fruition amid disruption tactics by Samsung.

Union ban key strategy to maintain low wages

Why has Samsung stuck to its union-free workplace policy in the face of international criticisms? Experts said the union-free management approach is a key strategy to maintain a structure of low wages. Fahmi Panimbang, director of the Indonesia labor group LIPS, explained, “The reason Samsung does not recognize unions is so it can directly controls wages, welfare, working hours, and production targets.”

“If there are no unions, there is no way for workers to protest collectively no matter how bad things get. [Samsung] can also stop company corruption and industrial accidents and deaths from being made public,” he added.

“With this sort of environment, they’ve been able to maximize profits by exploiting workers in Asia.”

Chang Dae-oup, a professor in Sogang University’s global Korean studies department, said, “If you take apart Samsung’s structure, there are layers that go from the head office to the South Korean factories, the overseas factories, and the overseas subcontractors.”

“The ‘world leader’ Samsung is a result of sacrificing workers at the lower levels. If unions were to be established and workers gained a stronger voice, it would become difficult for it to maintain its current low-wage structure,” he continued.

“The ‘union-free workplace’ management approach is a key strategy sustaining the Samsung system,” he said.

Samsung factories in Asia
Samsung factories in Asia

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

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

Most viewed articles