South Korea: Samsung workers fight for justice after suicide

Monday, November 18, 2013
Choi Jong-beom.

Samsung service worker Choi Jong-beom committed suicide on October 31 in protest against poverty wages and harsh working conditions at the company's operations in South Korea.

The 31-year-old was found dead in his car the following morning. He left behind a wife and a 10-month-old daughter.

Choi was a contract worker employed at a Samsung after-sale service centre that provided repair and maintenance services to customers. The service centre was owned and operated by an outsourced contractor.

Choi's death occurred against the backdrop of management pressure against union workers at outsourced Samsung service centres across the county. In a November 1 statement, the Samsung service centre union said he was “being targeted for investigation and pressure from Samsung because of his union activities”.

Samsung runs a strict “no union” policy that has largely kept unions out of Samsung operations since it was founded in 1938. Despite this hostility, 1600 workers from 64 service centres formed a trade union in August. It is affiliated with the Korean Metal Workers Union and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

This is the first time Samsung workers have managed to successfully unionise in significant numbers.

Pressure to dismantle the union came directly from Samsung company headquarters in Seoul. The parent company has been waging war against unionised service centres by cutting wages, increasing workloads and reallocating work to other outsource companies that hire scab labour.

Choi was struggling to keep his family fed and was skipping meals to keep up with his hectic workload, which began at 7am and ended at 9pm each day. A few days before his death, Choi was harassed by the owner of the outsourcing company.

On November 13, the union released a statement calling for Samsung to be held responsible for Choi's death.

Before his suicide, Choi sent a farewell message to his friends via social media: “It's been excruciating for me to work at Samsung Electronics Service. It's pained me because I am desperately hungry. It's been excruciating for me to see others suffering [like I am].

“I could not act the way [the late labor activist] Jeon Tae-il did, but I made the choice. I wish I could help anyway.”

Jeon Tae-il was a labour activist who committed suicide in 1970 in protest against labour law violations.

After news of Choi's death became public, management reacted with lies about his earnings. In a press release, Choi's employer, Yi Je-keun, claimed Choi earned between 3-4 million won (about $3000-$4000) per month.

These lies were later exposed after Samsung workers released their pay slips to the Hankyoreh newspaper. These revealed the workers were earning about 1 million won per month, on average, for working more than 60 hours per week.

Workers at the service centre have told the press they lived from pay cheque to pay cheque, and it was a struggle to feed their families.

A wife of a worker expressed her frustration to Hankyoreh: “My husband received a paycheck of 1 million won last month … he was at a loss for words and very sorry [about his low wage] as he knows how difficult it is to survive with such a little amount of money.”

The workers and their union have vowed to fight back. The day after Choi's death, angry workers occupied his workplace and held a memorial gathering till the early hours of the morning. Daily protests have been held at Samsung service centres across the country as workers have vowed to ensure Choi did not die in vain.

On November 10, Samsung workers gathered on the streets of Seoul, each carrying Choi's portrait. Participants also carried placards saying “We are all Choi Jong-beom”.

The workers met up with a larger crowd of more than 50,000 people that had gathered in downtown Seoul for the annual Jeon Tae-il labour march.

The larger crowd marched onto Samsung headquarters where the company's flags were burnt. Angry protesters shouted “murderers” at Samsung management.

For decades, Samsung has pursued a “no union” policy by refusing to negotiate with unions. Samsung's late founder Lee Byung-chill was famous for publicly stating that negotiations with unions would take place “over my dead body”.

Violence and bully tactics, including kidnapping, phone tapping and coercive transfers, are trademark methods used by Samsung management to eliminate unions.

On top of threats and intimidation, Samsung has kept unions out with a closely monitored and sophisticated outsourcing system that allows them to weed out union militants and keep wages at a minimum.

The manufacturing supply chain runs five to seven layers deep. Samsung keeps a close eye on the entire process from development to final assembly to ensure no unions are formed.

Outlets where workers take steps to unionise are boycotted by the company either by directly cutting off service contracts or through other methods such as cutting pay and pressuring contractors to weed out union militants.

South Korean labour law grants employees the right to associate in a union. By outsourcing, however, Samsung severs the employment relationship and denies workers the legal protection of employment status.

Outsourcing allows the de facto employer a free ticket to discriminate and take adverse action against workers who unionise.

The Samsung service workers struggle is part of a new wave of labour disputes in South Korea. This new generation of union militants is led by some of the most exploited and insecure workers in Korean society.

Some of the largest labour disputes in recent years have involved contract workers. At Hyundai motors, an ongoing bitter struggle is being fought out by young contract workers over the right to in-house employment.

This struggle has culminated in many factory occupations and strikes, including a bitter 25-day factory occupation in 2010. The dispute is still unresolved to this day.

Other key disputes involving contract workers include the 2008 Eland retail workers' 300-day strike, last year's national truck driver strike, and ongoing strikes by temporary workers at Incheon international airport.

The struggle of the Samsung workers in South Korea is also our struggle. Outsourcing has been used around the world as a method of union busting.

The same dirty tactics used by Samsung in Korea are being used in Australia. The Electrical Trades Union is involved in a High Court battle with the anti-union construction company Grocon over allegations the building giant is pressuring subcontractors to not hire union delegates and occupational health and safety representatives.

Outsourcing is being used around the world to smash unions and undercut decades of hard-won rights and conditions. Workers everywhere must stand together to resist outsourcing and the global race to the bottom. We are all Choi Jong-beom!

From GLW issue 989