The Hankyoreh’s response to Samsung’s denial of its global labor violations

Posted on : 2019-08-11 15:22 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Samsung releases position statement after refusing to talk to reporters before publication of special report series

On July 10, Samsung Electronics released a fairly long position statement responding to the recent Hankyoreh series, “Global Samsung: A Report on Unsustainable Labor Practices.” Between June 18 and July 2, the Hankyoreh published five investigative reports about the reality of labor conditions and human rights at Samsung Electronics factories in other countries. Samsung’s position statement basically serves as a rebuttal of the Hankyoreh’s reporting.

Titled “Some Information about the Recent Reporting on Samsung Electronics’ Overseas Workplaces,” the statement acknowledges some of the issues brought up by the Hankyoreh and offers an apology for those. Excessive overtime, allegations about worker safety at subcontractors, and rejection of labor union activities are some of the specific examples of the “shortcomings” and “problematic practices” that Samsung mentioned directly.

“We have run our business in accordance with global standards, but we still have our shortcomings. In the future, we will be even more thorough in our inspections, work to compensate for inadequacies, and move away from problematic practices,” Samsung promised. Samsung’s policy of rejecting labor unions and its poor handling of labor safety are some of the company’s best-known problems, which South Korean workers and labor activists have spent decades bringing into the spotlight.

But Samsung’s statement was still disappointing in numerous ways. For example, Samsung slammed several of the reports, arguing that they “misrepresented the facts” and doubting that they reflected “objectivity and a balanced perspective.” This article will respond to each of Samsung’s claims in order to aid readers’ understanding.

Hankyoreh‘s publication of the special series on Global Samsung
Hankyoreh‘s publication of the special series on Global Samsung

(1) Was takt time tightened because of the modulization of parts and the automation of processes?

Samsung provided the following rebuttal for a Hankyoreh report titled, “Samsung Gets Even Tougher in Asian Countries with Weak Labor Rights.” “This article described ‘takt time’ as a component of the ‘Samsungization of labor,’ a technique that Samsung Electronics uses to squeeze workers, but that too represents an inadequate understanding of the company and the manufacturing industry,” the statement said. The reason that assembly time was shortened at Samsung’s Asian factories, the statement added, was “because of the modulization of parts and the automation of processes.”

Needless to say, the Hankyoreh is aware that Samsung and other multinational corporations strive to maximize productivity by constantly investing in improving processes through such techniques as modulization and automation. The problem is that, for workers at Samsung’s factories around the world, “innovation” can sound like a euphemism for “high intensity labor.” During interviews with dozens of workers at factories in Asia, the Hankyoreh confirmed that Samsung’s “process improvement” sometimes produces a nerve-wracking experience for workers, who receive visual stress from numbers on screens and auditory stress from managers shouting behind them.

There are concrete examples of this. In 2013, Samsung was sued for 250 million real (worth about 120 billion won, or US$101.9 million) by Brazil’s labor prosecutors on charges of forcing workers to do overtime as part of an overzealous application of takt time. After that, Samsung removed the electronic screens it had used to pressure workers to increase productivity at its Brazilian factories. Although Samsung stresses that the press needs to “understand” corporations, all this unfortunately raises questions about how well Samsung “understands” labor.

(2) Did the cooperation of civic groups make the Hankyoreh’s coverage less objective?

In its position statement, Samsung said that the Hankyoreh “claimed it had conducted in-depth interviews of current and former workers with the assistance of activists from NGOs in South Korea and other countries. We have doubts about whether objectivity and a balanced perspective were reflected in the selection of interview subjects. The claims of a minority were generalized as representative facts.”

Samsung’s claims aren’t accurate. The selection of workers for interviews occurred randomly, without the help of NGOs. That was in fact disclosed on page 6 of the June 18 issue of the Hankyoreh, which said that reporters “approached workers who were wearing Samsung uniforms or name badges in the area of the factory before and after their shifts.” There were also workers who responded to interview requests that were sent on social media, again randomly. Nor do we buy into the argument that getting help from NGOs inherently reduces objectivity. Furthermore, the Hankyoreh has never claimed that the results of its survey were “representative.” In fact, it presented the significance of the survey as follows: “As a random survey, it isn’t statistically representative, but we are presenting the results to aid understanding about the reality faced by Samsung workers in Asia.”

(3) Was the autopsy of deceased Vietnamese worker Tam not evidence of a coverup?

Samsung Electronics said that the death of Luu Thi Thanh Tam at its factory in Vietnam was “very sad and unfortunate” but that it was “absurd to claim that the company and the police has carried out an autopsy against the wishes of the family in an attempt to cover something up.” According to Samsung, “If we’d wanted to cover something up, we wouldn’t have carried out the autopsy in the first place.”

While that might sound reasonable, it clashes with the fact that Tam’s family still doesn’t know the exact cause of her death. After Tam died, her family asked the hospital for medical documentation, such as a death certificate, but they weren’t give one. Even if we accept Samsung’s claim that the autopsy was only performed because of “procedural necessity,” there’s still the question of why the results of the autopsy haven’t been conveyed to the grieving family.

Workers leaving the Samsung Electronics factory in Vietnam’s Bắc Ninh Province on May 14. (Cho So-young
Workers leaving the Samsung Electronics factory in Vietnam’s Bắc Ninh Province on May 14. (Cho So-young

(4) Samsung breaks its stubborn silence in order to “muddy the waters”

While working on this series of stories, Hankyoreh reporters visited the headquarters of Samsung’s India branch and asked the company to present its side of the story. But the reporters were brushed aside and then forced to leave, after being informed that there was nobody they could talk to. Reporters tried calling several Samsung executives, but no one would take their calls.

On June 11, one week before the first article went to press, reporters shared the overall reporting with Samsung and asked for confirmation of the facts. The Hankyoreh wanted to ensure that Samsung had a chance to respond to criticism. Samsung was told that specific responses would be fully reflected in the stories. It was also sent a questionnaire with 14 questions, enabling it to ascertain nearly the full scope of the reporting. This contained queries about very basic information, including the number of people employed at each factory. But Samsung didn’t provide a concrete response to any of those 14 questions.

After refusing to respond to the Hankyoreh’s request for verification of basic facts, Samsung then criticized the newspaper in its position statement for printing the wrong number of employees at each factory in graphics that accompanied the articles: “The articles got basic facts wrong, such as the number of employees at our workplaces.” While the Hankyoreh was preparing its graphics without having received a response from Samsung, it’s true that we erred in listing the Noida factory as having 70,000 employees, which is actually the number of total employees in India, and the Vietnamese Thai Nguyen factory as having 3,000 employees, rather than the actual figure of 60,000. We would like to apologize to our readers and note that we have corrected those graphics.

At the conclusion of its statement, Samsung said it would “correct mistakes and continue working to compensate for shortcomings.” Correcting mistakes begins with looking at the facts. We hope that Samsung will get off to the right foot in aligning itself with global standards.

By Lee Jae-yeon, Kim Wan, and Ock Kee-won, staff reporters

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