South Korea: Striking Samsung workers prevail despite climate of repression

After 41 days on strike, on 28 June 2014, Samsung Electronics Service workers reached a tentative agreement with management on a host of issues including wage, working conditions, and unionisation.

Workers around the country had been demonstrating since 19 May 2014, including at Samsung Electronics’s Seoul headquarters and the residence of presumed CEO-in-waiting Lee Jae-yong, to protest what they describe as the repression of union activities by Samsung and “a murderous number of hours and inhumane working conditions while our salary continues to decrease,” according to union flyers distributed at demonstrations.

The strike began after Yeom Ho-seok, 34, took his own life inside a car on 17 May in Jeongdongjin, a small coastal town in the east of South Korea.

In his suicide note Yeom, a union leader, wrote: “I sacrifice myself because I cannot bear to see any longer the sacrifice and pain of others as well as the difficult situation of fellow union members.”

The standoff between the union and management took a dramatic turn for the worse when the body of Yeom, who had asked in his suicide note to be “cremated and scattered here [at the site of his death] on the day of victory,” was forcibly taken on 18 May 2014 by 300 policemen despite the written consent of both parents to grant the union custody of the body, according to a union representative.

The police, however, assert that only 80 officers had been dispatched to the scene. They declined to identify the legal grounds for involvement.

Yeom’s death was the third since workers banded together last year at the Samsung Electronics Service Branch of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU).

The first death was caused by exhaustion while the second death was also a suicide committed as a protest measure.

Since the formation of the union, workers have complained of a systematic crackdown by the corporation, which, as a part of the Samsung Group, contributes to some 24 per cent of South Korea’s GDP.

They accuse the company of closing down three unionised service centres and withholding work from union members.

The workers, who perform after-purchase repair on the company’s wide range of products for customers, argue that Samsung Electronics uses various subcontracting firms as a front for its service wing, Samsung Electronics Service, in order to negate any legal responsibility for workers’ salary and well-being.


“Disguised subcontracting”

Chong Hyewon, Executive Director of the International Department at the KMWU which represents the protesting workers, welcomed the agreement.

“This struggle is historic in that it represents the first time a mass-organised union of Samsung workers has achieved a collectively bargained framework agreement for trade union recognition and working conditions at Samsung, creating a fissure in Samsung’s 76-year ‘no union’ corporate policy.”

But a spokesman at Samsung Electronics maintained that outside subcontracting—or “collaborative”—firms employ the protesters even though they wear the Samsung uniform during work and are dispatched by Samsung Electronics Service call-centres.

Samsung Electronics Service confirmed the company’s view of workers as employees of third-party enterprises in its press release concerning the agreement, saying that it “welcomes the smooth facilitation of agreement between collaborative firms and the union.”

But as Dr Jamie Doucette, Lecturer in Human Geography at University of Manchester and an expert on South Korean labour and democratisation, explains, Samsung’s refusal to recognise itself as the employer of unionised workers conforms to a standard corporate practice in South Korea.

In an email to Equal Times, Doucette wrote: “International unions such as the International Metalworkers’ Federation have lobbied Korea to eliminate the use of dispatched and ‘disguised’ subcontracting: a situation where contracts are used to disguise direct employment relations and deny workers their rights to collective bargaining.”

The June 28 agreement, officially between the KMWU and Samsung Electronics Service’s subcontracting firms, tentatively promised management support for union activities and a basic monthly salary of US$1,200 for each service worker.

This was the second time in recent months that Samsung Electronics has come under the spotlight for its troubles with workers.

On 14 May 2014, just three days before Yeom’s death, the company offered an official apology for the prevalence of leukemia among workers at its semiconductor factory after seven years of denying complicity.

That apology came after an independently produced film titled Another Family (also known as Another Promise) caused a sensation in South Korea earlier this year with its story about the plight of a family whose daughter had worked at Samsung’s semiconductor factory and had subsequently died of leukemia.


Climate of repression

The end of the dispute at Samsung Electronics Service is a rare bit of good news for unions in a country where the climate of repression against labour is intensifying.

Numerous commentators and civic organisations including Lawyers for a Democratic Society (MINBYUN) have raised questions about the role of inadequately trained temporary workers and lax state regulation in the tragic sinking of, and 293 deaths onboard, the South Korean ferry Sewol on 16 April 2014.

However, the current government has consistently sided with the country’s major conglomerates (known as the chaebol) on labour issues and has assumed a strong anti-union stance to the present, opposing greater regulation and worker rights that would better guarantee safety for the public and workers alike.

As recently as 10 March President Park Geun-hye proclaimed: “Unnecessary regulation must be thought of as our enemy, akin to a cancerous mass that continues to kill our body, and only when it is actively excised with all our efforts can we achieve economic innovation.”

A large number of major unions have faced state repression during the last 18 months under Park’s tenure, including the Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU), the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and the Korean Government Employees’ Union (KGEU).

On 26 June 2014, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (KTU) announced a half-day walkout and a demonstration in downtown Seoul in response to its delegalisation by the government for allowing nine fired teachers to maintain union membership.

In return the Ministry of Education and the police promised a “severe response” to any teacher action and vowed to initiate criminal proceedings against teachers who publicly spoke out in opposition to the president or the government.

Meanwhile, on 28 June 2014, the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU), the Korean Public and Social Services and Transportation Workers’ Union (KPTU), the KCTU and the National Farmers’ Confederation all held major rallies in central Seoul to protest (variously) the opening of the domestic rice market to foreign companies, the government’s plan to privatise the national healthcare system, and ongoing state crackdowns on unions.

Hwang Hyeon-su, International Director of the KTU, believes that the current attacks on unions are ideologically motivated.

“While prejudice against the KTU is a problem that began under the previous president, Lee Myung-bak, who filled his cabinet with economic conservatives, it has intensified under Park Geun-hye who has surrounded herself with ideologically extreme conservatives from the time of her father [General Park Chung-hee],” he said.

Chong at the KMWU similarly expressed reservation at the future of unions and labour rights under the current president who “represents really radical conservatism that is fundamentally anti-union.”

She added: “This is really going back to the dictatorial past when the state repressed union rights and politically persecuted trade unions.”