South Korea: Samsung workers stage their first-ever strike

July 5, 2024
workers with signs
Unionised workers on strike on June 7.

Samsung workers in South Korea embarked on their first-ever strike on June 7, organised by the Nationwide Samsung Electronics Union (NSEU). This historic event involved approximately 28,000 union members, representing about one-fifth of Samsung’s workforce in South Korea.

The strike targeted Samsung’s chip division, which manufactures a variety of critical components such as RAM, NAND flash chips, USB sticks, SD cards, Exynos processors, camera sensors, modems, NFC chips, and power/display controllers.

The action highlighted deep-seated issues surrounding unionisation within Samsung, marking a significant shift in the company’s labour dynamics. Throughout the strike, union members posted visible notices on Samsung facility doors, outlining their grievances and demands.

Lee Hyun-kuk, vice president of the NSEU, described this action as “largely symbolic, but it’s a beginning”. He emphasised that the union has contingency plans for subsequent strikes if management does not. Lee further stated that the possibility of an all-out general strike remains on the table, underscoring the union’s determination to press for their demands.

The union is pushing for a 6.5% salary hike, in contrast to the company’s proposed 5.1% raise, as well as an additional day of annual leave and a more transparent approach to calculating bonuses. Bonuses are particularly important because they make up a significant part of employees’ pay.

In 2023, the method for calculating bonuses, which takes into account both operating profit and cost of capital, resulted in no bonuses being paid to workers. The union argues that bonuses should be based solely on operating profit. Samsung’s chip division reported a profit of $1.4 billion in the first quarter of this year.

Samsung Group has consistently opposed unionisation efforts, resulting in policies that keep wages low, provide minimal benefits, and enforce extended work hours. In December 2013, the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU), supported by the IndustriALL Global Union, revealed widespread violations of workers’ rights within Samsung. These violations included reports of kidnapping and physical violence against union leaders, alongside targeted training programs for management aimed at preventing union formation.

Samsung’s global reputation in the IT sector is also marred by its challenging working conditions, characterised by long hours and a reliance on precarious employment arrangements.

The company actively dissuades workers from joining unions and pressures unionised precarious employees to disengage from their representative organisations. These tactics involve paying lower wages to union members and subjecting them to intensive monitoring, which raises significant ethical concerns about Samsung’s treatment of its workforce in the technology industry.

Samsung Electronics Co, Ltd operates with a hierarchical workforce structure that reveals significant disparities. At the top are highly paid professionals and research and development personnel critical for innovation and product development. In the middle tier are skilled tradespeople and manufacturing workers across Samsung’s global factories, including those in South Korea, essential for production but often facing challenging conditions. At the lower end of Samsung’s labour hierarchy are workers employed by contractors and subcontractors, a group for whom Samsung denies responsibility despite their crucial role in the company’s operations.

The intense work culture at Samsung became evident during the 2012 Samsung-Apple patent trial, which exposed rigorous work conditions among research and development staff. Chief designer Wang Jee-yuen’s testimony vividly depicted the demanding nature of the job, including prolonged work hours that impacted personal well-being and family life.

Women constitute a significant portion of Samsung’s skilled workforce, often recruited from smaller towns to work in semiconductor labs. They endure extended shifts, rotating schedules, and exposure to hazardous substances.

Samsung is not alone in exploiting its workers. A study shows that iPhone workers today are exploited 25 times more than textile workers in 19th-century England. The exploitation rate for iPhone workers is incredibly high at 2458%. This means that workers spend most of their day producing goods that make the company richer, with only a tiny part of their workday going towards their wages.

Amazon, a major employer in the United States, is notorious for its challenging working conditions. Employees in Amazon warehouses face physical strain, workplace injuries, and mental health issues as part of their daily job risks. The company utilises advanced surveillance systems to closely monitor employee activities. While Amazon asserts these measures enhance safety, workers often feel pressured to maintain an excessively fast pace to meet productivity standards.

Additionally, Amazon has actively opposed unionisation efforts among its workforce. In 2021, the company spent $4.2 million on consultants to discourage workers from joining unions. However, on April 1, 2022, workers achieved a significant breakthrough with the establishment of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), marking the first union at an Amazon facility in the US. This accomplishment came after a year-long struggle against Amazon’s aggressive tactics against unions and garnered support from dedicated workers and organisers at the Staten Island warehouse.

In 2011, workers at the Maruti-Suzuki Manesar IMT plant in India applied to register a new union, the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU), in Chandigarh. Upon discovering this initiative, management allegedly pressured workers to sign documents pledging not to join the MSEU. In response, 3000 workers launched a sit-in strike on June 4, 2011, at the Manesar Plant, demanding recognition of the MSEU. To further pressure the workers, management fired 11 employees, including MSEU office bearers, on June 6 of that year, accusing them of inciting the strike. Over time, Maruti Suzuki has shifted its workforce strategy by increasing the number of contract workers under precarious conditions while maintaining a smaller core of permanent employees.

These labour movements show the ongoing global battle of workers against exploitation by powerful corporations. They underscore the challenges and unfair treatment faced by the workers and emphasise the necessity for systemic reform to ensure fair treatment and the equitable distribution of the benefits of their labour.

[This article was produced by Globetrotter. Pranjal Pandey is a journalist and editor located in Delhi.]

Postscript: Workers at Samsung Electronics in South Korea will commence a three-day strike on July 8.

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