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Brazilian labor advocate group Repórter Brasil depicts poor working conditions at Samsung’s Manaus plant as the Brazilian version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” Source: Agência de Comunicações do Governo do Estado do Amazonas

Brazil’s ministry of labor of has filed a civil-action lawsuit against Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. seeking 250 million reais (US$108 million) in damages for what it said is poor working conditions at the company’s assembly lines in the country’s free trade zone.

In the lawsuit filed on August 9, the government said its audit turned up serious labor violation at a Samsung plant employing about 6,000 workers in the Manaus Free Trade Zone in the state of Amazonas.

Addiction to Speed

The Brazilian government’s allegations corroborate an earlier report by Repórter Brasil,  a São Paulo-based labor advocacy group.

At the Manaus plant, workers work up to 10 hours at a time on their feet, packaging electronics goods literally within seconds.  The following is the breakdown of time and movements spent on packaging an electronic item by a team of about ten Samsung employees in Brazil as revealed by Repórter Brasil:

  Item   Number of Movements Time (in seconds)
  TV   87-96   65
  Speaker   112-142   38
  Cellular phone   64-110   32.7
  Tablet   50-91   85

Modern Times?

The Brazilian advocacy group depicted the plant “the Brazilian version of Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times.

Many workers make 6,800 repetitive motions a day.  Some have worked 27 days straight.  They are allowed two separate ten-minute breaks a day and fined by the company when exceeding ten minutes.

In 2012 alone, more than 2,000 workers suffered from a variety of health problems such as chronic back injuries, according the Brazilian government.

“We take great care to provide a workplace environment that assures the highest industry standards of health, safety, and welfare for our employees across the world,” Samsung said in a statement, hiding behind its usual vague language.

Samsung:  Corporate Recidivist 

This is not the first time that Samsung has had a run-in with the law in Brazil.  In 2011, Samsung paid the Brazilian government about US$200,000 to settle labor abuse charges.  And its current lawsuit is merely the latest revelations of widespread labor abuse at Samsung’s global supply chain.

The following are reports filed in the past 11 months on this blog on labor abuses and industrial incidents at Samsung:

Samsung Accused Of Labor Rights Violations In China

Samsung Seen Covering Up Fatal Gas Leaks At Its Chip Plant

Samsung Continues to Cover Up Fatal Chemical Leaks With More Lies

Samsung Receives Slap On The Wrist For Fatal Chemical Leaks

Another Fatal Accident Hits A Samsung Plant

Samsung Outsources Fatality Risk To Contractors

On SHARPS

As of March 2012, SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and aplastic anemia after employment in the electronics industry in South Korea.   As of June 2, 2012, 63 of the 155 have died.  The majority of the workers, 138, were employed at Samsung Electronics, Samsung Electro-Mechanics and Samsung SDS—the three electronics affiliates of the Samsung Group. Among the 63 deaths were 56 Samsung employees.

Correction.  An earlier version of this blog post misstated the amount of damages sought by the Brazilian government as US$250 million.  The correct amount is 250 million reais or US$208 million.  

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About 26 hours after the first leak on Jan. 27, South Korean police began to investigate the site of Samsung’s Hwaseong plan where yet-undetermined amounts of hydrofluoric acid gas were released.

Neighboring elementary schools have postponed new semesters in fear of fallout from recent chemical leaks at a nearby Samsung plant.  The surrounding community is unsettled with anger and frustration.  However, nine days after leaks of hydrofluoric acid gas that killed one worker and injured four at its plant south of Seoul, Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. continues to cover up the fatal incidents with more lies.  The following is a quick rundown of new facts that the world’s largest chipmaker had been covering up since this blog’s last post:

Fact 1

Samsung said of the Jan. 27-28 leaks as the first-of-its-kind incident.  However, it was not the first time that hydrofluoric acid gas, a virulent and deadly impurity remover for semiconductor wafers, has leaked at the Hwaseong plant.  The conservative Chosun Il bo quoted a study conducted in 2011 by Dr. Suh Byung-seong, of Sungkyunkwan University and Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, and reported that a 37-year-old male worker was treated in Sept. 2010 after exposures to the acid gas. 

Prof. Suh’s study did not name Samsung’s Hwaseong plant as the site of the leak and instead described it as a semiconductor plant with 20,000 employees.  However, Samsung confirmed the incident, saying “a contract worker was exposed to the leak [three years ago].”  This is particularly outrageous because while Samsung concealed the leak from authorities in breach of law, a professor who teaches at a university and a hospital that Samsung owns, could still conduct a study of the victim. 

Fact 2

Initial press reports put the volume of the January 28-29 leaks at ten liters.  Later, Samsung said it was about two or three liters.  However, an autopsy of the 34-year-old victim known by his last name Hwang turned up a blister larger than one centimeter in the respiratory path, suggesting that the amounts of the leaks exceeded the capacity of his gasmask’s filter.   The exact volume of the leaks has yet to be determined.

Fact 3

Samsung ordered the four workers who were dispatched to the leak from contractor STI Service to patch up the leaks with absorption pads and plastic bags although the workers reported that the melted gasket needed immediate replacement, according to an opposition lawmaker who interviewed one of the four workers. 

It was about 11:30pm, about nine hours after the first leak, when Samsung management agreed to the replacement. Hwang, who ultimately died due to his exposure to the leak, had to work on the leak during his first hours on the site without wearing a protective suit because Samsung had urged him to stop the leak immediately so production would not be interrupted. 

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Photographs of Samsung’s occupational-disease victims were displayed at the entrance to a National Assembly hearing in Oct. 2012 (ohmynews.com).

After six years of campaigns and petitions over 56 occupational-disease deaths at the world’s largest chipmaker, SHARPS has agreed to enter dialogue with Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. over the question of compensation for the victims of the company’s blood-disorder clusters and their families.

“Samsung’s dialogue proposal is the result of six years of our ceaseless efforts,” said SHARPS at a press conference January 22.

“Samsung has treated my daughter’s leukemia as though it was a random disease,” said Hwang Sang-ki, who lost her daughter Yumi to occupationally caused leukemia at Samsung.  “They also treated me like a heinous fraudster,” said the 58-year-old taxi driver whose lone outcry for her daughter’s untimely death six years ago led to the formation of SHARPS.

“Because the public has been scorning Samsung, thanks to our long campaign, the company agreed to dialogue,” Hwang concluded.

Ploys

This is not the first time Samsung sought out direct dialogue with SHARPS.  And to date, all proposals have come up with ploys.  In September 2012, through its lawyers, Samsung proposed to seek arbitration on an appeal lawsuit brought by SHARPS, on behalf of a leukemia victim’s family, against the Korea Labor Welfare Corporation, the South Korean government’s workers compensation entity.  SHARPS rejected the proposal because Samsung, a third party to the lawsuit, called for dropping the lawsuit.  In October 2012, Samsung leaked a false story to the media, claiming that it has begun dialogue with SHARPS.

It was November of last year when Samsung sent SHARPS a written request for dialogue through a lawyer representing the company in the appeal lawsuit.  In December, SHARPS accepted the proposal.  In January 2013, Samsung complied with SHARPS’s request and confirmed SHARPS’s acceptance in writing.

The following is the timeline:

March 6, 2007  Hwang Yumi, Samsung’s former chip line worker, died of leukemia.
Sept. 28, 2012  Samsung made its first request for dialogue with SHARPS, on the condition that SHARPS would drop the ongoing workers compensation lawsuit.  SHARPS rejected it.
Oct. 17, 2012  Some media outlets began to run false stories that Samsung had initiated dialogue with SHARPS.
Oct. 18, 2012  Testimony by Samsung executives at a National Assembly hearing confirmed that the aforementioned media reports are false.
Nov. 27, 2012  Choi Wu-su, president of Samsung’s device solution unit, sent a written request for dialogue through a lawyer representing Samsung at the workers’ comp lawsuit
Dec. 20, 2012  SHARPS accepted the request in a letter to Samsung Representative Director Kim Jong-jung.
Jan. 4,  2013  SHARPS in writing urged Samsung to express its willingness to dialogue in writing.
Jan. 11, 2013  Representative Director Kim notified SHARPS, in writing, of the formation of a negotiation team.

Maneuvering

In a letter dated January 11, Choi Wu-su, president of Samsung’s device solution unit, said the company tapped an in-house lawyer and a human resources executive for dialogue with SHARPS.

However, the company appears to be continuing its maneuvering by leaking unsubstantiated leads to the media.   On January 22, the independent Hankyoreh described a new remarkable proposal under consideration at Samsung for the occupational disease victims, citing an anonymous Samsung executive.  “If necessary, we can raise a special fund for the people who developed leukemia not just at Samsung but also anywhere at home and abroad,” the newspaper quoted the unnamed source as saying.

Over the past six years,  SHARPS has profiled 155 workers who contracted various forms of leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and aplastic anemia after employment in the South Korean electronics industry.  As of June 2012, 63 of the 155 have died.  The majority of the workers, 138, were employed at Samsung Electronics, Samsung Electro-Mechanics, and Samsung SDS—the three electronics affiliates of the Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate.  Of the 63 deaths, 56 were Samsung employees.

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A series of protests and petitions has stopped Seoul National University from hiring Hwang Chang-gyu, former semiconductor chief of Samsung, as visiting scholar.

After protests by SHARPS and student groups on campus, the Sociology department of Seoul National University (SNU) has reneged on plans to hire a former Samsung executive as a visiting scholar.

The SNU sociology faculty requested the university administration discontinue “administrative procedures” to appoint Hwang Chang-gyu, CEO of Samsung’s semiconductor unit between 2004 and 2008, to the cushy position, the department said in a statement posted on its website Jan. 21.

Hwang was once internationally famous for doubling memory chip capacity every year between 2002 and 2008. Hwang’s stint as head of Samsung’s semiconductor unit also is also infamous for a big push on production speed and volume at the cost of workplace safety.

Hwang Yumi, the first leukemia victim who came out against Samsung, was hired at the Samsung chip unit in 2003 when Hwang Chang-gyu began his big push on speed and volume.  In 2005, she was diagnosed with leukemia.  In 2007, Yumi died at the age of 23.  Her family’s public outcry led to the formation of SHARPS.

The month-long attempt at Hwang’s hiring inspired protests at one of South Korea’s most prestigious colleges, from law school to the department seeking to bring him in-house.  The sociology faculty found itself under public pressure and only grudgingly renounced the plans.  “We feel deeply responsible and offer a sincere apology to Dr. Hwang [Chang-gyu] for the abnormal end to his hiring,” said the faculty in the statement.

The faculty went on to pontificate:  “We express concerns about the bias expressed in statements by students.  Interpreting Dr. Hwang’s hiring as a move to desert labor and side with capital cannot rescue sociology from the 20th century paradigm.”

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In April 2010, Dutch fund manager APG Asset Management and seven other global investors jointly engaged Samsung, following the death of Park Ji-yeon, a 23-year-old semiconductor assembler of the company.

Global activist funds have taken issue with the employment of child labor by Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., the Hankyoreh, South Korea’s independent daily, reported Sept. 18.

“We sent an inquiry to Samsung in August when allegations of Samsung’s use of child labor in China first surfaced,” the newspaper quoted a source of APG Asset Management, of the Netherlands, as saying.  “Employment of child labor won’t be tolerated.  If the allegations turn out to be true we will discontinue investment [in Samsung].”

Confirming receipt of the inquiry, Samsung spokesperson Park Cheon-ho told the Hankyoreh, “APG and other institutional investors requested us to explain the allegations against us.”  He added, “we said there is no child labor [at Samsung], but there is an issue of excessive overtime, which we will examine and address.”

This is not the first time APG, the world’s third-largest pension administrator by assets, has raised concerns about poor labor practices at Samsung.  In April 2010, the Dutch fund manager and seven other global investors jointly engaged Samsung, following the death of Park Ji-yeon, a 23-year-old semiconductor assembler of the company.

However, the effects of the institutional investors’ engagement were limited.  APG said afterwards: “The outcome was not altogether positive.” The institutional investors said, “From the day our engagement started, reports trickled in of Samsung’s behind-the-scenes negotiating with its ailing ex-employees and the families of the deceased.  Local media reported that the company had tried to buy off the case.”

APG concluded, “All in all, we are not satisfied with Samsung’s response so far.”

And young workers have continued to die. During the two years since the global institutional investors’ joint intervention in 2010, the number of victims of Samsung’s leukemia/blood disorder clusters has more than doubled to 56 from 22.

With rising concerns globally about Samsung’s negligence of human rights, SHARPS’s campaign is entering into a new stage.

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Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. and its Chinese contractors hire underage workers and force their employees, underage or otherwise, to work excessive overtime in harsh working conditions, China Labor Watch, said in a new report released on Sept. 4.

In China, Samsung has a manufacturing network of a dozen directly owned factories and relationships with 250 contractors.  In May-August, CLW, the New York rights group, conducted undercover investigations into six directly owned factories and two contractors.

At least three directly owned facilities regularly hire underage workers.  At Tianjin Samsung Mobile Display Co., Ltd, Huizhou Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd, and Shenzhen Samsung Kejian Mobile Telecommunication Technology Co., Ltd, each employing anywhere between 500-2,000 workers, workers under 18 years of age are required to do the same work as adults without extra protection or legal recourse.

Many of the children are students seasonally hired from local vocational schools.  Student workers have to pay Rmb800 (U$126) in upfront middleman fees, or about half a month’s wage, to be hired.  Students are encouraged by management and their teachers, who often work as middlemen, to forge their documents to pass as adults.  The illicit practice is also profiled in an investigative report by the independent daily Hankyoreh of Tianjin Samsung Mobile Display. 

Samsung at least admitted that there was a need for the company to have Chinese workers working overtime.  “We partly agree with the report that there are times when workers need to work overtime at some plants, especially when we launch new products or build new manufacturing lines,”  James Chung, a Samsung spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal.

Excessive working hours is common practice at the eight facilities.  Samsung and its suppliers flout a legally mandated 36-hour workweek and force workers to work more than 100 hours in unpaid overtime.

The worst is Tianjin Intops Co., Ltd, a supplier, where each of an all-women army of 1,200 contract workers has to work standing for 11 hours a day to assemble a cellular phone cast every five seconds.  At the peak of the production cycle, they must work up to 150 hours of overtime per month.

On its home turf of South Korea, Samsung employees are among the best paid.  However, Samsung’s negligence of its own workers is also well-documented.  SHARPS has to date profiled 56 workers who died of a variety of types of blood disorder and cancer  which they developed while employed at the company’s production facilities.

During a high-profile patent infringement lawsuit by Apple against Samsung, testimony by a Samsung designer of Smartphone icons, Wang Jeeyeun accidentally revealed how much the world’s largest electronics maker is addicted to the daily sacrifices of its overworking workers.

During the three-month period, in which she developed icons for Galaxy S, Samsung’s tablet, she said, “I slept about two or three hours a night.”  Ms. Wang had to stop breastfeeding her three-month-old infant to keep up with schedule.

CLW’s latest report was in line with its findings a month earlier of child labor at Samsung’s supplier, HEG Electronics in the city of Huizhou.  It dealt a fresh blow to Samsung because the report came out on the heels of an internal audit by Samsung which exonerated HEG of hiring underage labor.

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Young workers at HEG Electronics (Huizhou), Samsung’s Chinese contractor.

HEG Electronics (Huizhou), a Chinese contractor that assembles devices for Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd hired underage workers at its production facilities, according to a preliminary survey released on August 7 by China Labor Watch, a New York-based Chinese labor rights advocacy group.

Samsung’s Chinese partner forced the young workers to work the same excessive hours in the same harsh conditions, said the New York rights watchdog, while paying them 30 percent less than their adult colleagues. On the assembly lines for Samsung devices, workers, underage and adult alike, had to work standing for more than 11 hours a day.  On top of that they are only given a 40-minute break for meals, said the survey.  There are 28 discipline points that lead to management levying hefty penalties against the young workers who make an average of $1.27-$1.08 per hour.

In the survey it covertly conducted in June and July, CLW profiled seven child workers ranging in age from 14 to 16 and estimated that at least 50-100 child workers were employed on HEG/Samsung production lines.  HEG management was aware of the clear violations of local labor regulation in employing children and made attempts at covering them up.

Many underage workers worked as seasonally hired “interns.”  For student workers, there are no formal contracts, nor age verification.  School teachers helped forge documents or vouched for the underage hires to “serve their own interests,” according the survey.  Even after HEG managers discovered that some of its workers were underage, they continued to employ the children, and moved them to a rented dormitory outside the factory to hide them from outside inspection.

Indeed, HEG depends heavily on a cheap labor pool from local vocational schools for churning out DVDs, stereo systems, and MP3 players for Samsung.  During summer and winter vacations, 80 percent of its 2,000-strong workforce is students and 60% during the non-season.

Samsung provides fixed assets and other equipment to the Chinese contractor, the survey said.  More than 50 Samsung employees are posted to HEG production facilities.

However, Samsung pleaded ignorance of child labor at its Chinese contractor.  “Samsung Electronics has conducted two separate on-site inspections on HEG’s working conditions this year but found no irregularities on those occasions,” Nam Ki Yung, a Samsung spokesman, told Bloomberg News.  Samsung said it would send an investigation team to HEC, according to a tech news site, The Verge.

According to CLW, Samsung uses Intertek as its outside CSR auditor for contractors and suppliers.  CLW discredits Intertek’s trustworthiness, pointing to the fact that its inspectors took briberies from Chinese contractors.

Whether Intertek has audited HEG for Samsung in the past is unknown.  However, in 2011, in a move to dodge pressure from SHARPS and other labor advocates, Samsung commissioned Environ, a pro-business technical consultancy, to prove the lack of causality between the leukemia clusters at is semiconductor facilities and their working conditions.  Samsung did not provide reliable and comprehensive data.

Founded in 2000, CLW is an independent not-for-profit organization.  In 2010, CLW published reports on safety-lapse-caused explosions and a series of suicides by employees at Foxconn, the Chinese/Taiwanese contractor of Apple Inc.

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