The supply chain of Samsung Electronics is shrouded in a series of avoidable deaths as two electronics repairmen died within about 30 days apart, after the world’s largest technology company stepped up pressure on its after-sale network in a move to crush an ongoing unionization drive and to retain its chokehold on labor discipline.
Choi Jong-beom, a repairman, was found dead in his car on Oct. 31. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning as evidenced by consumed charcoals found in the vehicle. Choi was a contractor for Samsung TSP, an after-sale service provider of Samsung Electronics Service, the wholly owned unit of Samsung Electronics. The following is the suicide notes that the 31-year-old worker texted to his co-workers and union leaders:
This is Choi Jong-beom. Please capture [the screenshot] of this text message [for me]. It’s been excruciating for me to work at Samsung Electronics Service. It’s pained me because I was starving. It’s been excruciating for me to see others suffering [like I am]. I could not act the way [the late labor activist] Chon Tae-il did, but I made the choice. I wish I could help anyway.
Chon Tae-il was a 22-year-old worker who set himself afire in 1970 in protest of rampant violations of labor law in the South Korean garment industry of that era.
Death and Suicide
Choi’s death came on the heels of the tragedy of Yim Hyeon-woo, the 36-year-old Samsung repairman who died in late September of an overwork-caused brain hemorrhage. In the four months leading to his death, Yim worked spent an average of 60 hours a week repairing Samsung products at homes and offices.
Apologies and Smearing
In a rare move, Samsung Electronics Service expressed regret over Choi’s death Nov. 1. However, its contractor—and Choi’s employer—Samsung TSP quickly smeared him. Samsung TSP CEO Yi Je-keun said Choi, an employee of four years, took home an average of KRW 4.1 million (U$3,900) and KRW 5 million (U$4,700) during peak season.
A survey by the independent daily Hankyeoreh <Korean> belied CEO Yi’s allegations. According to the newspaper, for September this year, a Samsung repairman of six years working in Pohang, the city about the size of but richer than Chonan where Yim worked, took home KRW 1.05 million (U$980) after out-of-pocket expenses and costs. The take-home pay is slightly higher than a legally mandated subsistence level of KRW1.01M (U$942).
Both Yim and Choi were contractors who worked for regional contractors for Samsung Electronics Service, to which Samsung Electronics outsources all after-sale services such as repairs and maintenance of its garden-variety of electronics goods. Samsung Electronics Services owns only nine of its 107 repair branches. The remaining 98 are contractors who hire the most of Samsung’s about 6,000-strong repair staff mainly on a piecework basis.
The multi-layered supply chain enables the global electronics giant to ruthlessly pass costs on to the bottom of the hierarchy. Choi, his wife, and their ten-month-old daughter did not literally starve because his pay managed to stay above the subsistence level. However, Choi often skipped meals to keep up with schedule which often ran from 7am through 9pm in peak season.
Crushing the Union
Choi’s death came amid rising tensions between Samsung and its 6,000-strong repair staff. In August, about 1,600 workers from 64 branches formed a trade union, demanding Samsung Electronics Service to grant them full-time status in the company. Samsung has since been transferring jobs from unionized branches to non-unionized ones, cutting the unionists’ already meager wages.
Management’s harassment played the role in Choi’s suicide. A few days before his death, Samsung TSP CEO Yi threw expletives at Choi over a flimsy customer complaint against him.