Samsung: Designed for humans, produced in deaths — Behind the world’s leading maker of electronics

Samsung: Designed for humans, produced in deaths 

– Behind the world’s leading maker of electronics  


by Krystal

chinese version of this article:


Victims of working in Samsung

Samsung, one of the world’s largest multinational corporations, has just achieved record surges in profit. Boasting an operating profit in the second quarter of 2012 that jumped by 79% from last year, Samsung has made itself the world’s leading maker of mobile phones, TVs and DRAM memory chips. In its home country of South Korea, it generates about 20% of the US$1.1 trillion economy and has 80-some subsidiaries that provide a huge range of products and services.

Samsung Electronics is the crown jewel of the Samsung conglomerate network. The brand name of Samsung is especially familiar to people in Hong Kong, where Samsung smartphones and other electronic products are hit sellers. But behind its new slogan – ‘Designed for humans, inspired by nature’ – lies a very different story for the humans who are actually making the goods and keeping the cash rolling.

As of March this year, there have been 155 reported cases in South Korea alone, of Samsung electronics-producing workers who contracted fatal diseases such as leukemia, sclerosis and aplastic anemia. Amongst those cases, more than 60 have died so far. Other workers have experienced skin diseases and even miscarriages. Despite growing evidence, Samsung continues to deny any causal relationship between its work – where the list of chemicals used remains top secret – and the deaths and illnesses of its workers. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that the Korean government has been working closely with Samsung to allow the company to skirt labour legislations, deny the workers’ their rights to organize and to be safe at work, and to escape responsibility for the workers’ illnesses and deaths.

SHARPS (Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor industry), a group whose establishment in 2007 was triggered by the death of a young female worker at Samsung called Hwang Yu-mi, is helping those workers fight for their rights when no one else will. On a rare visit in mid-September to Hong Kong, SHARP’s Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, leading labour activist and Jongran Lee, a labour attorney, spoke to us about Samsung’s abusive practices and the difficulties of fighting for the company’s victims. Over the space of an hour, we found that Samsung’s dark story went even deeper than a case of profit maximization at all costs – it proved to be a spectacular example of the unholy alliance between business and government that has become prevalent in capitalist economies around the world.

Ms. Jongran Lee (left) and Dr. Jeong-ok Kong (right), Hong Kong

K: Krystal, interviewer, Left 21                              DK: Dr. Kong, speaking for herself and also translating for Ms. Lee

K: Dr. Kong, can you tell us your organization’s goals? What are you fighting for?

DK: SHARPS was formed from activists and other victims, starting from 2007, after one young Samsung worker named Hwang Yu-mi died at the age of 22, and her father realized that many other workers had fallen ill or died under similar conditions. The father suspected that the deaths were due to the dangerous work environment, but the company Samsung continuously denied they were work-related, and used means of threats, bribes and concealment of evidence to stop the truth from coming out and deny responsibility. But through our own efforts, we have steadily gathered more and more evidence, and so far we know of more than 155 cases of illnesses and 62 of them have already died. The victims need to get compensation and rehabilitation, and these deaths must be stopped, but it can only be done through a combination of investigation of the dangers, punishment of the employer, and so on. So one of our most important goals is to fight for compensation for the victims from the government’s workers’ compensation system. We want to get official compensation first, instead of taking money from Samsung right away.

K: Why is that, even when the government seems so incompetent? What’s the major difference?

DK: The worker’s compensation system is supposed to work like this: if you get injured at your workplace, first you can apply for workers’ compensation through the government as a quicker and basic form of guarantee to take care of urgent medical treatment and your family’s living. After that, you can file a lawsuit to demand the employer to take responsibility. We want to do both, but it’s important to first get official compensation in accordance with the law. There are three major reasons why: first, in order to be able to demand responsibility from your employer, getting the government’s compensation system to recognize your case is very important evidence. And secondly, once your injury or disease is recorded officially, that authorizes the relevant government bodies to take action against the company – to inspect or even penalize it. So it opens up an opportunity for the government to intervene with the company’s behavior. And the third reason to do this is that the number of victims just keep increasing. If we accept payment from Samsung for one victim, then what about the next? Samsung uses strategies like this – they pay victims who are more vocal and ‘important’, and then they leave the rest. This way they can deal with individual workers much more easily than dealing with a group. If we can get official compensation, it’s not only for Samsung workers, but also workers at contractors under Samsung, and even other workers in the semiconductor electronic industry. So our main goal is to push the government to do what it’s supposed to do – as an inspector and regulator of businesses.

K: How successful has that been?

DK: Last year, we succeeded in getting recognition for occupational cancer after a lawsuit that lasted four years. We’d filed a lawsuit for five victims against the government because they refused to compensate the victims. We won recognition for two of the victims but lost for three of them. Those two were historical victories, because almost nobody ever wins against Samsung. But after the verdict, government officials visited Samsung and then announced that they would appeal to the higher court. We had a sit-in protest to ask the government not to appeal, to just stop and accept the result, because four years is really enough for the victims. But they still did it. So these two cases are still ongoing. The decision of the high court will come this year, and it’s very difficult this time because, as I said, Samsung has influence over the judiciary. Even some good judges kneel down in front of money in the end. Last year’s victory was a miracle.

“Recognize trade unions over my dead body!”

K: Couldn’t a union help the workers get their rights and compensation? Is it true that Samsung has a “No Trade Union Policy”?

DK: Samsung doesn’t allow any trade unions, period. Lee Byungchul, the late founder of Samsung, had said, “Recognize trade unions over my dead body!” The company wants to make sure that it is always in control, and they need workers who always remain in a weak position. But of course, their anti-union policy is against the law. Samsung does a lot of things to keep it up. For example, spying. If they observe any people trying to organize something – even workers who simply gather in a group, before talking about forming a union – the company watches them and follows them. They record their activities. That’s the most common thing. They wiretap people’s phones and, with their technology, they can track your location to know where you go frequently. Samsung has a special department that deals with these things, and they are really strong. In Korea the government also has a department that handles national security, like the CIA or the FBI, but Samsung’s surveillance capacity is even stronger than theirs, so sometimes the government asks them for intelligence. We can see that they rule all the information. Besides preventing unions from forming, they also do their best to bust unions; leaders of a Samsung union that was recently formed, has been punished by the company by various means.

K: The company wiretaps its employee’s phones and tracks them down, and the government just lets it happen openly?

DK: Do you know what a public secret is? Yes, everybody knows that it’s happening. For example, we used to have one very important worker, he did not have any disease yet but he had lost his colleagues. He was one of four engineers in a team, and all of his three colleagues got seriously sick. The first guy got blood cancer, the second guy got skin cancer in his thirties, and the third one got a very rare and dangerous disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis. Anyway all three couldn’t work anymore, and one had already died. So this fourth guy came to us and told us a lot of things. He also said that he would be able to fly to the US if there was further trouble from the company. But then, all of a sudden, he just disappeared. We couldn’t find him. When he finally came back to us, he asked us not to say anything about the information he had provided before. Someone from the company had approached him and told him that if he went on doing what he was doing, they could prevent him from leaving Korea, he wouldn’t be able to leave the country. The guy had only told us about going to the US – he hadn’t even told his wife. So that’s how he realized that everything was wiretapped, and the company must have done something else to him, because later on, Samsung actually used him to oppose our witnesses in court. So it’s a very brutal thing, what they did. They destroyed his soul, actually.

K: Samsung seems to imply that they can’t compensate these dying workers because they have to keep their competitive edge in the international capitalist system, and that allowing trade unions would lead it to lose out to companies like Apple. What would you say about these ideas?

DK: They should shut up! (bitter laugh) In Korea there are three fundamental labour rights: the right to associate, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to collective action like strikes. These are the constitutional rights of workers. It’s a really serious crime to suppress those constitutional rights. If there were only a small number of victims, it might be different, but for a long time the workers have been suffering similar working conditions and have gotten similar diseases, and there are over a hundred now. If there was a trade union in Samsung, they could have done something when they saw this pattern. Those deaths could have been prevented. In other words, Samsung’s anti-union policy killed these workers.

SHARPS’ demonstration

Business and government, partners in crime

K: You mentioned that Samsung can actually affect who leaves the border, and that they control a lot of privileged information as well. How much influence does Samsung have over the Korean government? And what do they get from it?

DK: A secret internal document of Samsung on how to control the workers was disclosed in 1998. The document showed us that Samsung had connections not only with higher officials in the government, but even with government officials of the lowest ranks. For example, there are labour inspectors in the Ministry of Labour who are of very low rank; Samsung has developed strategies to ‘manage’ these low level officials. Samsung gives them gifts, makes visits, socializes with them – basically, they create personal friendships without any explicit demands. All of these steps were written in the document as a kind of guideline for managing the government. Samsung has built connections with all the ministries, the departments, the police, the local governments, the judiciary, the media….so it’s a huge network. A lot of judges and lawyers used to get money from Samsung for their studies and rent in the form of scholarships. There’s a metaphor that we commonly use: the government is like a vocational school – either you ‘continue study’ or you graduate and get a job. For example if you’re an official in the ministry that deals with financial policies, and you make policies that favour Samsung, then everybody would start speculating, “What kind of job is he going to get in Samsung later?” That is ‘getting a job’. Or, you would end up with a higher position in the government; that is ‘continuing study’. So either way, the government is like a training ground for Samsung.

K: Does that happen very often?

DK: Of course. There are a lot of cases, but the funniest case is this one – his name is Noh Min-ki, and he was the Chair of KOSHA, the Korea Occupational Safety & Health Agency. And he used to be the deputy minister of the Ministry of Employment and Labour before he worked in KOSHA. Anyway, he quit the job, and now he’s one of the only two external executive directors (Outside Directorship) in Samsung’s SDI. It’s obvious that he was promised a job. And the thing is, we had launched our campaign for Samsung victims while he was in office in KOSHA. KOSHA had dealt with the problem very well for the company then, because they investigated and refused to release any results, and so we suffered a lot because of their attitude. Some of the victims tell us that they feel even deeper hatred towards the government – specifically, KOSHA – than towards Samsung. Because Samsung is bad, but the government should be the government of all the people.

K: So we can see that Samsung has a lot of direct influence over the government. What about indirect forms of influence? To what extent does Samsung’s position as a monopoly in the Korean economy give it more bargaining power?

DK: Very much, because Korea is a very small country. According to one of the two employers’ associations in Korea, the breadwinner for the whole Korean economy is the semiconductor electronics industry. And Samsung is number one in that industry. The gap between Samsung and the second runner-up is very wide. So you can say that they are the breadwinners of the Korean economy! And even though electronics is a major sector of the Samsung group, they also have private insurance companies, hospitals, universities, their own media, and so on. And then there are the family members of Samsung. Even though they don’t belong to the Samsung group, Samsung’s family members like sons and daughters and in-laws own most of the big companies, so it’s actually a network of the richest families that’s ruling the Korean economy. That makes a lot of people dependent on Samsung and its network for their income.

K: Aside from recognizing Samsung’s workers’ diseases and deaths as work-related, what else should the government do to protect the workers?

DK: The government has legal obligations that they need to fulfill. For example they should inspect Samsung factories and other workplaces, but they don’t do that. Under the so-called voluntary safety and health policy, it becomes self-regulating. The companies write the inspection reports and the government just approves. It’s funny. It’s as if you put a criminal in jail and tell him, you should watch yourself! Even in factories where there are a lot of deaths, the government doesn’t do its job properly. For example Samsung has continued to refuse to open its factories and provide urgently needed data that could probably confirm the dangerous chemical exposures faced by workers, and could ensure that the illnesses and deaths are put to an end; instead of being forced by the government to open up and reveal the truth, it has been allowed to take a ‘voluntary’ step of engaging a US firm ENVIRON to do an investigation, which has ended with results showing “no health risks” for workers, and no “scientific link to the diagnosis of leukemia of several ex-plant workers.” We question the ‘science’ and the intention of this Samsung-sponsored investigation. Thus we keep our focus on the government as our target; it’s essential to penalize the employer that violates labour legislations and human rights. But right now, even if we can get official compensation, that’s still from taxpayers, and so the employer – like Samsung – does not have any difficulty. They can kill more workers, because it’s cheap. A worker’s life is so cheap.

The final goal is an invisible one

K: So in Korea, most people know about these issues. But, as we know, a lot of Koreans are very proud of Samsung since it seems like some kind of national achievement. Does that kind of nationalism create difficulties for your campaign?

DK: Yes, a lot of Koreans may feel proud of Samsung, like it represents the nation. For example, they would feel proud to see Samsung advertisements in that the subway in other countries they travel to. So these facts about abuses and deaths, it’s a truth that makes people very uncomfortable and conflicted. That may be negative for our campaign, but on the other hand, we feel that sometimes it helps us. Because some of those people who feel proud of Samsung actually want to see the company act responsibly. They think that since Samsung is Korea’s top company, it should be able to handle these problems in a fair manner.

So we think that in Korea we’ve achieved quite a lot in spreading awareness. But one of our main goals in the long term is to challenge the workers’ beliefs that have been created by the company. Despite their working conditions and lack of rights, a lot of workers still believe that they already have a good job, because Samsung can afford to pay them higher salaries than other workers in the same field, and because they are proud of working for the great brand Samsung. We had cases of victims who felt deeply exploited and who suffered a lot in harsh working conditions, and they wanted to leave, but even their families could not understand that. They would say things like, ‘You’re working for Samsung, a lot of people envy you, you know?’ Samsung encourages workers to compare their salaries and their company name with other workers so as to keep them loyal. Think about it: you work very long hours, and you have nowhere to go, and the company provides all kinds of services like organizing choirs, hiking groups…It makes many workers reason that although the work is very hard, Samsung is already a good company, as it has given them chances to learn this and that. But their rights are worth more than that. Their lives are worth more than that. So our final goal is an invisible one, to change people’s – especially workers’ – belief and perception of Samsung.

K: In Hong Kong, we have a very good impression of Samsung, and not many people know about the victims or the practices inside Samsung’s workplace. Why do you think that is? How much attention do the media give to your campaign?

DK: In general, people’s awareness is not enough, even in Korea. Nowadays a lot of people in Korea have come to know that there are Samsung workers who got cancer and other diseases, but still they don’t understand our goal. Most people think that we could just accept some money from Samsung, so why make such a big deal about the official compensation system? But still, recently there has been more awareness since we applied for the Public Eye award, which chooses the worst company in the world. Samsung got number three! (laugh) And then a German TV program has dealt with the issue, so more people in Europe know about it now. Before that, in Korea, no major media could deal with this issue, because they were pressured by Samsung’s advertisements as a major source of their revenue, and so even when several main TV programs tried to deal with this issue, they failed to broadcast in the end when Samsung threatened to pull out all of their advertisements.

K: What do you think we in Hong Kong can do? What do you think about consumer boycotts?

DK: I used to be opposed to the idea of consumer boycotts because it is very easy to fail and difficult to achieve any real goals. And Samsung’s market is very global, so a boycott in a small region is not going to be effective. It would only be symbolic. So I would rather wait and organize a broader consumer’s campaign. I think the important thing for consumer boycotts is to set a very specific goal, otherwise usually you can never finish these campaigns. Also, to boycott Samsung’s products is very difficult, so we need to focus on a particular product, for example one of the Samsung Galaxy models. We need to set up a certain goal, a specific product, and a time period. When we do this, when we do launch any worldwide campaign, we hope that you in Hong Kong will help in solidarity. Meanwhile, please spread the word about what is going on in Samsung and Korea. That really helps a lot!

Samsung ad in MTR stations in Hong Kong

Unveiling Samsung’s façade of grandness and glory, we see brute exploitation and perverse corruption. The dominance of the corporation has infiltrated the government to the extent that the labour department, the security apparatus, the judiciary, the health department…. All areas of government which should be working to ensure the livelihood and protection of citizens have been subverted to maintain the smooth flow of profits to the corporation – to businesses in general, in fact. The meaning of democracy is robbed, despite the existence of elections and elected representatives, due to government collusion with capital. The workings of the state function to enslave rather than free workers, and workers themselves are also induced by corporate and nationalistic propaganda to believe they are fortunate rather than victimized. The case of Samsung worker victims in ‘democratic’ South Korea reflects the impossibility of genuine freedom of citizens under governments that submit their whole population to the pressure of capitalistic competition and the demand of capital for subservient workers.

Learn more about Samsung and SHARP’s campaign:

Blog with pictures of the ongoing campaign:

Another interview with Dr. Kong, by Asian Monitor Resource Centre: (Chinese)



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