In recent weeks Samsung’s brand has undergone a series of spectacular and very public failures, with its flagship Galaxy Note 7 smartphone continuing to catch fire despite a global recall and failed effort to fix the problem. But exploding smartphones and botched safety recalls represent just the outer edge of the company’s crisis. The tech giant’s supply chain has long been fatally tainted, according to labor activists, churning out wage exploitation, chemical hazards, and mass labor abuses. So the retail quality-control issues fit perfectly with the wholesale degradation of workers’ quality of life.
Global unions are now mobilizing against Samsung’s “medieval” empire, which produces about one-fifth of South Korea’s export economy. Labor activists attribute many of the company’s alleged labor abuses to its strict no-union policy, which has been instrumental in suppressing wages and labor rights throughout its low-wage manufacturing network. Today, Samsung continues to be run in an idiosyncratically Korean form of business known as a “chaebol,” which operates as a family cartel that in turn controls the lives of tens of thousands of workers across four continents.
An analysis of the company’s supply chain, published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), examines labor practices at Samsung worksites in Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States—all countries with vastly different economic structures, standards of living, and labor regulations—but all roped into Samsung’s multinational union-free zone, under a hyper-competitive manufacturing model of breakneck output and disposable gadgetry. Additionally, about 8,000 suppliers provide subcontracted labor under even more precarious conditions, according to the report, which leave workers with virtually no control over their wages, work schedules, or occupational safety conditions.
Economic “risk” is outsourced to subcontracted workforces in India and China, where labor is cheaper and corporate power is greased by rampant corruption.
One worker suicide documented in the report reveals the psychosocial alienation built into Samsung’s labor model:
On October 2013, Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU) member Jong-Beom Choi, 32, self-immolated after being pushed into extreme hardship through targeted auditing…. The young leader committed suicide after being heaped with verbal abuse and insulting treatment just 100 days since the workers had formed a union. The KMWU said the same repression faced 1,600 other union members at Samsung Electronics Service Local.
The report quotes Choi’s haunting suicide note: “The whole time I worked at Samsung SVC was so hard for me. I haven’t been able to enjoy life being so hungry, and everyone’s struggling so hard that just bearing witness to this is also painful.”