Whistle-blowers admonish Samsung's conduct in China

Chinese factory workers (Image: Robert Scoble)

Despite Samsung’s soaring achievements, the South Korean electronics colossus has faced much turbulence in recent years.

The East Asia Gazette previously wrote about the 2010 Greenpeace accusation of Samsung for producing an enormous number of products that contained toxic substances. Also, in 2011 the Swiss whistle-blowing organization Public Eye penalized Samsung for using banned and highly-toxic substances in its factories without informing and/or protecting its workers. This resulted in 140 work-related cases of cancer as well as 50 deaths. On August 24, 2012, in conclusion to a court case against Apple, jurors delivered a verdict deciding that Samsung was guilty of six out of seven patent infringements and smacked a $1.05 billion compensation fine on the multinational. Now, Samsung has once again come under the spotlight. Two reports by the New York-based group China Labor Watch have blown the whistle on the Korean company for illegal activity at their Chinese factories.

China Labor Watch admonished the illegal conduct at Samsung’s Chinese factories for instances of verbal and physical abuse, age and gender discrimination, child labor abuse and over 100 hours of forced overtime work.

This ill-conduct is being carried out at the factories Samsung directly owns and operates as well as its supplier factories. CLW's first report - released on August 7 - argues that out of the 2,000 employees at one of Samsung’s supply chains, the HEG Electronics firm in Huizhou, 80% are student workers and about 50 to 100 are child laborers. The children's stipend is 70% that of the formal employees, and the tasks they are assigned often result in injuries.

The second report accused eight directly operated Samsung factories of forced overtime, tiring working conditions, labor contract violations, lack of worker safety, discrimination, abuse, and lack of a platform to argue for worker rights. Overtime work reaches up to 186 hours a month during peak season. The workers are often required to stand for the entirety of their shifts, which last approximately 12 hours. Three factories were found to have hired underage workers whose ID cards were swapped with those of older ex-employees to create a facade of legality. Some factories were found to favor hiring female workers as they are more compliant and less demanding of their rights. The more demanding factories hired more male workers for fear that the females could not produce equal results.

The report specifies that the average monthly wages are 3200~3300 RMB (about $510) which is only half of their monthly overtime wages. This causes overtime work dependence, which CLW claims is “characteristic of workers at almost every investigated factory.”

Interestingly, business ethics writer and professor Chris MacDonald underlines that this is often voluntary work: “Of course, wanting more overtime doesn’t prove that things are great at the factories; it just proves that workers want more money than they make during a regular workday. After all, if you pay people poorly enough, everyone will literally beg you for more overtime.”

Whereas there is nothing wrong with working to make more money, the exhausting hours are potentially unsafe, especially since many of the student workers in the factories are only 16, which is the legal working age in China.

According to an article on BBC, Samsung was notified of China Labor Watch’s first report concerning the HEG Electronics under-age workers. Samsung denied the allegations, saying it has “zero tolerance” for said practice.

However, an article on the South Korean daily Hankyoreh tells a different story: since HEG was aware of Samsung’s plans to investigate, it moved its underage workers off the premises prior to the investigation team’s arrival. In fact, China Labor Watch’s observations in the second report were released just days after Samsung's statement.

Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker, said it would inspect its 250 Chinese partners by the end of this year. But unlike Apple, the South Korean tech giant does not allow factory checks by third-party investigators. With over $12 billion in profit, China Labor Watch has suggested Samsung at least set up a hotline for workers to communicate their grievances, educate managers, promote operation transparency and legitimize unions.

None of this has been done thus far.Taiyuan, China

The allegations Samsung is currently facing call to mind the same criticism Apple faced in 2011 for worker suicides at Foxconn’s Chinese firm. What’s more, Foxconn suspended production of Apple products yesterday in the northern city of Taiyuan due to a brawl involving 2,000 employees. Although China's official mouthpiece Xinhua News reported that the fight broke out due to a personal dispute between workers, Al Jazeera explains that posts on a Chinese online forum suggested the riot broke out after a security guard hit one of the workers. Samsung should take extra care of its Chinese factories to not stroll down this same shameful path.

The Korean conglomerate has already copied several features of Apple products. Now, as China Labor Watch jokingly asks, "is Samsung infringing upon Apple’s patent to bully workers?”

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