A French scholar who took an MBA course about 20 years ago in Japan with Lee Jae-yong (also known as “Jay)”, vice chairman and the heir apparent of Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., urged Mr. Lee to negotiate with victims of the company’s occupational disease cluster.
In an open letter posted on Facebook Sept. 14, Paul Jobin, associate professor of East Asian Studies at Paris Diderot University in France, and Mr. Lee’s former peer at Keio Business School in Japan, demanded sincerity and transparency in Samsung’s dialogue with SHARPS, saying, “I hope you can resume as soon as possible the social dialogue with Sharps, which is representing more than 200 victims from your company, and I wish this dialogue will be sincere and transparent.”
Heir Apparent Without Accountability
Prof. Jobin’s open plea came at an appropriate time. Jae-yong, the only son of Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, has been gradually assuming control over the world’s largest technology company from his bedridden father. Lee the younger has been part of Samsung’s top management since 2011 when he was named Vice President, Corporate Planning and a year later took the vice chairman position.
Chairman and Vice Chairman
The titles of chairman and vice chairman are misnomers outside of a Korean context because neither Chairman Lee nor Vice Chairman Jae-yong is a member of the board of directors at Samsung. The patriarch and his son are chairman and vice chairman of the company, not its board.
By taking these once-titular, obsolete roles, the Lees control Samsung, a public company with U$199.4 billion in market value, and exempt them from fiduciary duties and public accountability. This surely explains why it was not Messrs. Lee, but Kwon Oh-hyun, who at best nominally runs Samsung as CEO and as a director, made an apology last year to victims of the occupational disease cluster. It also at least partly explains why Samsung continues to flip-flop in its negotiations with the families and SHARPS.
The following is a full text of Prof. Jobin’s open letter to Vice Chairman Lee:
An open letter to Lee Jae-yong, Vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics
By Paul Jobin, his former classmate at Keio University and currently Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies of Paris Diderot University, France. firstname.lastname@example.org
Even though twenty years have passed since we were classmates at Keio University (in the MBA program of the Keio Business School), I remember quite well that you prepared carefully every case study, checking the dictionary when you had some doubt on a Japanese word. During class discussions, your comments were clear, direct, frank and most often, brilliant. In addition you were also kind, fair and easy-going.
I remember once at the library, as we were chatting, I told you that I had to prepare an application for a scholarship, and I asked if you were also thinking of applying for one. You smiled and you answered evasively meaning that you did not need it. Later when I mentioned this to another classmate, he laughed at me: “How could you not know that Jae-yong is the son of Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung, and a possible heir of that empire!” Well, indeed, this shows how ignorant I was! But it reminds me also that you did not make a fuss of who you were. You were not just “the son of,” you had already a strong personality and you deserve your brilliant career at Samsung Electronics. Today, I am proud to have been your classmate, and I am sure our former teachers at Keio and our “M16” classmates must share the same feeling.
However there is something that I am less proud of. It is seeing the media reports about your company’s response to the employees who became sick with leukemia and other occupational illnesses, and to the families of those who have died at such an early age. It makes my heart break and I wonder if you share this reaction.
Once, at Keio, in the class of business strategy, we were discussing the case of the Morinaga arsenic milk poisoning incident. Do you remember? Professor Furukawa showed us some dramatic visuals of children bodies harmed by the poison. Yet, we couldn’t help but smile at the embarrassment of our classmate who was employed by Morinaga company, when the professor asked him to provide a fair and ethical solution to that dramatic case.
That class session left a very strong impression on me. Later for my PhD dissertation I focused on the case of Chisso Chemical Company and Minamata disease, another dramatic case of industrial disease. I am much less familiar with the history of the dispute with former workers at Samsung Electronics, but from what I have been able to read in English, it seems to me that today your company could be facing a crisis that holds many similarities with those of Morinaga or Chisso.
In Taiwan, I have also been observing the lawsuit against RCA, another electronic company, and its parents firms the American General Electric and the French Technicolor (alias Thomson Electronics), sued by a group of 529 former workers who have developed various forms of cancer, miscarriages and other health problems. Though the causality is more complicated compared to the case of Samsung, in April this year, the district court of Taipei acknowledged that their health problems resulted from their occupational exposure to organic solvents and other toxicants. The lawsuit will continue at the court of appeal, with another group of more than 940 plaintiffs. This is the sort of mass toxic tort that not only costs the defendant company a lot of money in attorneys fees and due compensation, but worse than that, it generates a very bad publicity for the company brand at a global stage. I’m concerned that Samsung’s actions are continuing to tarnish the reputation of the company around the world.
Earlier this year, Samsung Electronics provided hope to the victims by accepting direct negotiations. However the recent responses by Samsung to these negotiations seem to show a lack of fairness from the company side. I hope you can resume as soon as possible the social dialogue with Sharps, which is representing more than 200 victims from your company, and I wish this dialogue will be sincere and transparent. As you know, the dispute at Samsung Electronics with the victims of leukemia and other occupational illnesses has already been widely reported around the world. If a class-action were to start at court, I am afraid it would further damage the company’s brand.
I am sure you are keenly aware of these considerations of “business strategy.” Most of all, I wanted to remind you about the class discussion we had long time ago about the Morinaga case, and what Professor Furukawa recommended that we think about in terms of fair and ethical response. Furthermore, I don’t know to what extent, as a vice-chairman of the company, you can directly step in to these negotiations, but I believe that you — who had such a fair, smart and kind spirit in your youth — could help bringing a fair and ethical solution to the victims.
I will pray for you and them for this to happen.
 If I may call you so, as we haven’t met for years, but if I remember well, at KBS, we used to call each other by our First names when speaking in English, and our family names when in Japanese. I wish I could have found your personal email address, but I could not, so I hope you won’t mind this open letter.