Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


South Korea investigates Samsung’s labour practices

December 2013

South Korea’s labour ministry is to examine allegations that the Samsung Group instructed subsidiaries to foil attempts by workers to organize labour unions.

The move comes after an opposition lawmaker unveiled a leaked copy of an internal Samsung document from 2012 on labour-management strategy. The document includes instructions that Samsung companies should sabotage attempts to form trade unions. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the document is significant because it verifies Samsung’s policy about trade unions, is the first written evidence of such a scheme, and it elaborates as to how the management intends to thwart employees involved in any attempt to create a union.

"If a situation where a union is established arises, [cause it to] collapse as quickly as possible with full capabilities," says the document. It also advises that management should keep daily records about the work performance of employees so that if anyone attempts to form a union, the records can be used as evidence to either dismiss them or take disciplinary action against them while avoiding possible charges of unfair labour practices.

In fact, trade unions do exist at eight Samsung companies and most of them existed before the companies were taken over by Samsung. However, these are either “pro-company” unions or ghost entities, existing in name only.

Employees involved in attempts to establish trade unions have reportedly suffered from various forms of harassment and threats from the company in an attempt to deter them from proceeding. According to union activists, such harassment includes illegal surveillance, threats, assaults, disciplinary action, dismissal, legal action, and interference with distribution of union magazines.

In one instance in 2000, when a few Samsung SDI workers started to form a union, management ordered them all to be dispatched overseas. Those who refused the order were dismissed for disciplinary reasons.

“Considering the circumstances,” say the AHRC, “it is reasonable to believe that the Samsung group has adopted and operated strategies such as those written in the strategy document on more than one occasion.”

Based on the document, the Korean Metal Workers' Union, Lawyers for a Democratic Society, and the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy have filed a complaint with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office against 10 top Samsung executives, including the Group’s Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

The proposed government investigation will be the first time the group, as a whole, has been under an investigation for labour practices.

Samsung | Asia | Trade Unions

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