Samsung under Public Eye

By Daniele Pestilli on January 11, 2012
Samsung headquarters. Image by Oskar Alexanderson originally posted to Flickr as DSC_0234 [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The South Korean electronics colossus, Samsung, recorded the largest yearly revenue of any other global tech firm in 2011, according to a recent report by Yonhap News.

Its sales stood at a whopping US $148.6 billion, followed by Hewlett-Packard Co. at $127.4 billion. Apple’s sales during the same period reached $108.2 billion. This is a great victory for Samsung, especially after all its legal disputes with Apple across the globe.

With the flagship Galaxy S line of products, the conglomerate has overtaken the Finnish multinational communications company, Nokia, in terms of handset sales making it the biggest manufacturer of mobile devices. Samsung sold 300 million mobile units (December 2011 figures excluded), Reuters reported.

But sales are not the only field where Samsung has acquired a reputation.

Despite the company’s promises to “consume less and return more” (Samsung Profile 2011) by recycling and reusing water in its factories, reducing energy consumption, turn increasingly to biodegradable and biomass-based polymer plastic parts, as well as undertaking a renewable energy initiative in Ontario that will create the largest wind and solar cluster in the world – all in the name of “good business” rather than good sense – Samsung has been nominated for the Public Eye People’s Award 2012.

In 2010, Greenpeace accused Samsung of producing an enormous number of products that contained toxic substances. In Benelux, they harshly criticized the conglomerate for breaking promises and for lagging behind its competitors – Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Apple – regarding the deployment of eco-friendly products.

A report released by Samsung in July 2011 confirmed that all BFRs (Brominated Flame Retardants) and PVCs (Polyvinyl Chloride) had been phased out from its mobile phones and many other products. However, Public Eye, which is organized by Greenpeace, underlines that in random samplings cancer-causing solvents were still being used and information regarding 10 of 83 chemicals is yet undisclosed.

This Switzerland based whistle-blowing organization, which aims to criticize transnational businesses that operate in the name of profit as opposed to social responsibility, claims:

[Samsung] uses banned and highly-toxic substances in its factories, without informing and/or protecting its workers ... Samsung has a history of over 50 years of environmental pollution, trade union repression, corruption and tax flight.

Public Eye further penalizes Samsung for 140 work-related cases of cancer as well as 50 deaths, and argues that its no-union policy obfuscates the truth and impedes proper investigation.

An October 2010 article by the Korean daily, The Hankyoreh, reports that Democratic Party Lawmaker Lee Mi-kyung brought up the issue of illnesses among Samsung Electronics factory workers during an audit of the Ministry of Employment and Labor. She stressed the fact that in the United States, disclosure regarding used chemicals is a must according to law, and although the American branch of Samsung Electronics follows this regulation, in South Korea they do not. In order to ascertain the causes of deaths from harmful exposure to substances at Samsung plants, the company must provide greater transparency.

An August 2011 article by the same daily confirmed that Samsung “decided to pay the cancer treatment costs of former employees at its semiconductor and LCD plants.” However, to be eligible for these treatment compensations, strict conditions must be met, meaning that many would not receive due care. There has been no update from The Hankyoreh as per the disclosure of secret chemicals.

The online blog, Stop Samsung, enumerates cases of leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumor, multiple sclerosis and other ills that have affected victims of Samsung factory workers who were exposed to dangerous chemicals. It also voices its concern over the deleterious working conditions, stress and depression that afflicts a multitude of its employees.

Members of the Samsung Accountability Campaign have accused the corporation of operating “with impunity” and called it “one of the most corrupt operations on the planet.”

This Korean giant has become a global leader in terms of market sales, and progress is being made in green initiatives. What remains to be seen is whether it can fully solve more pressing environmental and human predicaments.