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Samsung workers' rights under the spotlight as Galaxy S8 launch nears

The International Trade Union Confederation scrutinises Samsung in the lead up to the Galaxy S8 release

Samsung reportedly broke records in its home country, South Korea, on 10 April, when its upcoming Galaxy S8 smartphone nudged 550,000 pre-orders in just two days.

The launch of the Samsung Galaxy S8, which is set to go on sale in Australia from 28 April, is broadly expected to mark a return of sorts for the company following the fallout from the Galaxy Note 7 debacle last year.

The company was forced to recall of millions of its flagship smartphones globally after issues with the Galaxy Note 7 batteries caused units to combust or catch fire.

Now, despite a move to recycle some of its old Note 7 units to be sold or rented as refurbished phones, Samsung is working hard to put its Note 7 battery issues behind it, build up consumer confidence and rouse interest in the release its next generation device.

Largely, it appears to have succeeded in this goal, as the South Korean pre-order record demonstrates.

However, the mounting fervor surrounding the release of the company’s next flagship smartphone has overshadowed questions that have emerged about the way the company treats the employees that make its devices and whether the pace of production puts workers’ lives and wellbeing at risk.

In September 2016, a group named the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released a report scrutinising Samsung and the conditions under which its employees toil to make its products.

The report, Samsung – Modern Tech, Medieval Conditions, claims that the technology company employs “no-union” policies internally which, ultimately, see its employees and contractors subjected to less-than-ideal conditions.

“Leaked documents show that Samsung corporate policy is to punish union leaders. Samsung Electronics intervenes actively to prevent the formation of unions at its suppliers,” the report stated.

“Dominated by Samsung, the cut-throat electronics business outsources work to a network of factories with low-paid workers in unsafe conditions.

“Samsung’s ‘no-union’ policy affects the entire Asian electronics industry.

“When workers in electronics factories supplying parts to Samsung, Panasonic, Toshiba, Sanyo and Canon have stood together to demand fairer wages and conditions, their leaders have been sacked,” it said.

According to ITUC, research shows that up to 94 per cent of supply chain workers from which multinational companies depend are part of “a hidden workforce” that lives on poverty wages, and in jobs that are insecure and often unsafe work.

ITUC said that Samsung, as a dominating figure in the global tech market, possesses a business model that has “lost its moral compass, based on the exploitation and abuse of human rights in its supply chain”.

By way of example, ITUC makes claims in relation to at least two incidents in which workers were killed or injured while contracting to, or in the service of organisations that had contracted to, Samsung.

“As of July 2016, at least four contractor repairpersons of Samsung Electronics were killed on the job or committed suicide in protest of poor working conditions and tough time-management rules,” the report said.

“In February and March 2016, five workers were poisoned by methanol gas at Samsung Electronics’ subcontractors, risking vision loss. Samsung remains exempt from liability,” it said.

Further, the report references a worker safety group, called SHARPS, which it claims to have documented more than 200 cases of serious illnesses, including leukaemia, lupus, lymphoma, multiple sclerosis and brain tumours among former Samsung semiconductor and LCD workers.

“Seventy-six have died, most in their 20s and 30s,” the report stated.

As a result of its research, the ITUC subsequently made efforts to petition Samsung to “end worker abuse and abolish its no-union policy”.

More recently, in a statement released on 30 March, ITUC general secretary, Sharan Burrow, once again took aim at Samsung, claiming that it employs a company-wide policy that uses a combination of “bribes, threats, bullying, dismissal and even kidnapping” to keep its employees, and people working for its suppliers, “under total control”.

“Samsung’s Galaxy 8 is a global poster boy for corporate greed,” Burrow said. “While the world’s media has focused on the dangerously defective Galaxy 7 and the corruption scandal engulfing company headquarters, thousands of Samsung workers have been toiling in dangerous and oppressive conditions to deliver the new model.

“People who are thinking of buying a Galaxy 8 should know that it is a product of exploitation,” she said.

According to ITUC, which is based in Belgium and refers to itself as the “global voice of the world’s working people”, a 115-page manual obtained by a member of Korea’s National Assembly in 2013 detailed how Samsung senior management received training in techniques designed to stop workers joining trade unions.

“The Galaxy 8 is being produced under the same conditions, despite calls from the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association for the Korean government to investigate and make the company respect basic workers’ rights,” the ITUC stated.

According to the ITUC, the case also describes a so-called “greening” process within Samsung, which it claims is forced on supplier companies, and sees upstream workers offered inducements to discourage them from joining unions.

From Samsung’s perspective, however, the company is doing all it can to protect its workers, and those of its contractors, while providing the “best environment for our employees to reach their full potential by proactively addressing their needs”.

“Organised labour unions are present across a number of subsidiaries at Samsung around the world,” a Samsung spokesperson told ARN. “Where labour unions are not present, employees are represented via employee committees and other channels setup to ensure transparent communication with management.

“Samsung believes it is our responsibility to hold ourselves and our suppliers to the highest labour standards and practices. We value the global network of employees at all of our manufacturing facilities who make it possible for us to deliver our products to consumers worldwide.

“As a global manufacturer, we are at all times committed to following local and global labour standards and regulations and our supplier partners are required to do the same," the spokesperson said.

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Moreover, Samsung’s 2016 Sustainability Report outlines the company’s self-professed adherence to a number of global human rights standards and workers’ rights codes of conduct.

“Samsung is committed to abiding by all laws and regulations in the countries and local communities where it operates,” the report stated. “We also respect the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

“At the same time, as a dedicated member of the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), Samsung fully complies with EICC's Code of Conduct, a core requirement that takes into account various international standards,” it said.

According to Samsung, the company abides by an internal Samsung Code of Conduct, which is based on five major business principles that it announced in 2005, which is aimed at enforcing an ethical standard of business conduct in all activities. On top of this, the company claims that it has other measures in place to protect workers.

“In 2014, we developed and announced a child labour prohibition policy in China,” the report stated. “In 2016, we will take a step further to develop guidelines for apprenticeship training in India and guidelines for migrant workers in Malaysia.

“We expect all facilities at Samsung to follow these guidelines and our expectations with individuals and suppliers in our supply chain will remain the same.

“To make sure our policies are implemented, we conduct regular on-site inspections and compliance training. Also, Samsung is aware of its corporate responsibility to eradicate modern slavery and forced labour.

As part of its initiatives in the area of employee protection, Samsung said that it welcomes changes in the legal environment, such as with the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and the UK Modern Slavery Act.

At the same time, however, the company conceded that it was re-examining its policies and activities related to modern slavery and forced labour in a bid to “discern which complementary measures” it needs to take to help eradicate slave labour.

As of 2016, when the report was published, Samsung Electronics operated 38 production bases in 17 countries around the world, directly creating 90 per cent of its own production volume at various worksites.

According to Samsung, each worksite abides by all in-house, internal policies and standards, and often goes beyond obligatory standards in order to maintain a safe and healthy work environment.

Samsung is certainly not the first multinational technology company that has come under fire over workers’ rights and conditions. Apple has previously copped criticism over one of its major suppliers, Foxconn, and its reportedly poor working conditions.

Although Apple shifted some of its production work from Foxconn to fellow Taiwanese supplier, Pegatron, in 2013, the company still occasionally feels the heat from accusations over questionable conditions for its suppliers’ workers.

Since 2007, Apple has been releasing annual Supplier Responsibility progress reports in a bid to ensure that organisations in its supply chain comply to sound employee policies.

“In 2016, we continued to increase our efforts with our suppliers. We performed 705 comprehensive site audits, our largest number to date. Our suppliers demonstrated an improved ability to meet our stringent standards,” Apple said in its latest report.

“In fact, the number of high performing supplier sites increased by 59 percent, while low-performing sites decreased by 31 percent,” it said.

Samsung’s supply chain includes more than 2700 suppliers, while Apple’s suppliers employ millions of people globally.

For ITUC, which stated in its report that, “the model of global supply chains is broken,” moves by individual companies to protect workers do not go far enough.

“Corporate greed, corporate bullying cannot be tolerated – it’s time for a global rule of law to guarantee globalisation with fair working conditions, with rights, minimum wages on which people can live with dignity, and safe and secure work,” Burrow and IndustriALL general secretary, Jyrki Raina, said in a joint statement.