A NGO‘s journal on surveillance activity by Samsung and Indian police
An Indian civic group claims to have been subject to an investigation by Samsung and the police for nine months after writing a report related to the company. This has led to suspicion that Samsung mobilized government authorities to cover up information that put the company in a bad light, as the report described the “union-free workplace” strategy and illegal labor exploitation at the Samsung Electronics Chennai factory, It appears that it will be difficult for Samsung to avoid criticism for having close ties with police, an issue that has come up numerous times in Korea, and engaging in the same regressive privacy invasion tactics outside of Korea as well.”Samsung impersonated government authorities and monitored us for nine months”
The Hankyoreh obtained records from “A,” an Indian NGO who wished to remain anonymous, described their contact with Samsung and the police over a nine-month period between August 2016 and May 2017. The records contain details of police visiting the house where the parents of an A activist lived, pretending to be laborers to meet with organization leaders. It also states that Samsung employees visited A in person, accompanied by police officers, to apply pressure to the group. These actions only ceased when the secretary general of A made a direct protest to the director of Samsung India.
In May 2017, A wrote a document titled, “A record of harassment and threats from Samsung Electronics against A” in order to let other civic groups know what was going on. The summary of this report states, “Over the past nine months, our organization has been impeded by secret surveillance from individuals posing as laborers or government authorities. One female activist was even stalked,” adding, “We recently learned that this harassment and bullying was carried out at the orders of Samsung Electronics, a globally renowned company.”
In a phone conversation with the Hankyoreh, an official from A requested anonymity for this piece, stating, “We have determined that the best way to protect ourselves is not to reveal our names in the context of issues related to Samsung.”
The Kanchipuram District Police in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. (Kanchipuram District Police official website)
Samsung employees accompanied by police: “We will be watching you closely”
According to the records, the first encounter with police took place on August 13, 2016. A published their report online, but then deleted it for security reasons. On that day, an A activist received a personal phone call from an individual who claimed to be “working at Flextronics (an electronic components manufacturer)” and “had some troubles.” When the activist met with the “laborer” in person the following day, he produced his police ID. The ID card identified the individual as sub-inspector Vasanthi from Branch Q of the Kanchipuram District Police Office (the department responsible for investigating and monitoring cases related to anti-government organizations.) Kanchipuram is the district where Samsung’s Chennai factory is located.
Sub-inspector Vasanthi questioned the activist about A’s recent sources and collected personal information from him, including the address of his parents’ house. As for the reason behind the investigation, Vasanthi stated that the police had “received a complaint about A contacting 250 Flextronics employees over the phone and encouraging them to join a labor committee for female workers, so my boss asked me to look into A.” However, A had never called anyone at Flextronics. “At the time, I had no idea this was related to Samsung,” the A activist said. “I just felt that something was off.”
Two months later, Vasanthi’s intention became clear. On October 20, he visited A again, accompanied by a Samsung employee named Thillainayagam. Thillainayagam he introduced himself by claiming that he was “a former police chief now working at the criminal department of the Tamil Nadu State Police Agency” before seizing activity reports from A. It wasn’t until six months later that the truth about Thillainayagam came to light. In reality, he was a former police officer who was now working for Samsung’s private security. During that period, Thillainayagam posed as an active police officer to collect information from A. “I gave him almost everything he asked for because I thought he was from the police,” an A employee said. On October 22, Thillainayagam investigated the details of the organization’s funds, claiming that “the government has ordered closer monitoring of some civic groups.”
The visits became even more tenacious after the report was released in May 2017. From March 21 to April 22, Thillainayagam contacted A on eight occasions either in person or through sub-inspector Vasanthi. Activists were interrogated with questions about whether they “intended to establish a labor union” or “had ever distributed pamphlets to laborers [within Samsung].” After the investigators’ identities were revealed, they brazenly demanded cooperation from A, claiming “a report about A has to be submitted to the company [Samsung].” In May 2017, Samsung’s HR team also got involved. On May 2, Thillainayagam and Parthiban (an employee under Samsung’s HR team) called one activist at 2- minute intervals and demanded to meet with him.
Police track down family members and ask them about their debts
The records also outline how police visited the hometown of an A activist to investigate his background. The fact that this region is located more than 200km from the Samsung factory suggests the cozy relationship between Samsung and the Indian police may span across multiple regions.
Two officers from Branch Q of the Dharmapuri District Police Office visited the private house of the parents of one activist on two occasions in September 2016, and also made phone one call. Based on this investigation, they wrote a report and shared it with others including sub-inspector Vasanthi. This report states, among other things, that the activist had not fully paid off his student loan, and even contained pictures of his face that the police obtained from his parents. While conducting the investigation, the police are said to have asked whether the activist was a Maoist or had any ties to organizations in Sri Lanka.
Acquaintances of the group’s members were also questioned. On Apr. 18, one of them received a phone call from a former university thesis adviser.
“Thillainayagam was asking about you,” the professor said. “He works for Samsung, and he said he received orders to thoroughly investigate [A].” It was then that A’s members learned Thillainayagam was a Samsung employee.
“We believe Thillainayagam used some of his younger acquaintances among the police to conduct a background investigation,” an employee of A said.
“Some of the members felt deeply terrorized by these pressure tactics employing their family and friends,” the employee added.
Samsung‘s overseas violations of labor laws
Samsung promises not to contact group again, but offers no official apology
On Apr. 24, 2017, the secretary general of A called Manu Kapoor, the director of Samsung Electronics’ Indian arm, to personally lodge a protest. The secretary general also asked to verify Thillainayagam’s department and position. Kapoor called the secretary general on May 2 and said he had “instructed our employees not to contact [A] again.” He also said he was “sorry” for the previous actions. Three days later, he sent an email with similar content to A. The message included Thillainayagam and other employees on its CC list. But Kapoor did not answer A’s request to disclose Thillainayagam’s affiliation, and no official apology was made.
The Hankyoreh also received no official response to its request for clarification from Samsung. But working-level employees did acknowledge the truth of some of the allegations regarding investigations into A.
“We determined the scope of participation in [A] and its funding sources,” said a Samsung Chennai employee who was reportedly in charge of civic group-related affairs at the time.
By Lee Jae-yeon, staff reporter, from Gurgaon, India
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