Not just Apple: Working life at the Samsung iPhone factory

By Jonny Evans

With all the fuss and bother over Apple [AAPL] and conditions in the iPhone factories and the lies propagated as fact by US 'humorist', Mike Daisey, it's easy to imagine worker suffering is something you'll only find care of Cupertino, except this isn't true. So, what's life like inside Samsung's iPhone (I mean Galaxy) factories? To me it looks like Samsung has its own problems, too.

[ABOVE: It isn't just features Samsung's matching in its anti-iPhone zeal. Published evidence suggests it might benefit from transparent investigations into working conditions in its Galaxy factories, too.]

Samsung's got some problems too

Conditions inside Apple's factories accumulate reader attention, unfortunately (for workers) conditions at Samsung don't rate much more than the occasional media blip. I've taken a look at some of the blips, and they don't make a pretty story.

June last year saw reports of a high incidence of serious illnesses among Samsung employees, with the Seoul Administrative Court: "Acknowledging for the first time a link between leukemia deaths of Samsung employees and their working conditions," according to a local report.

It seems employees (two are mentioned) at a Samsung semiconductor factory were "repeatedly exposed to harmful chemicals and radiation at work". The report describes incidents of leukemia and more at the company, which as we know manufactures components for others alongside its own huge catalog of consumer electronics devices.

Conditions inside Samsung's factories have generated a wave of protests in South Korea, including the evolution of protest groups, including worker's advocate body, Banollim.

Leukemia clusters cause concern

Banollim is led by labor attorney, Lee Jeong-ran. She began working to expose conditions at Samsung in 2007, when she represented a father who had lost his daughter to leukemia.  

She says those who fell ill with leukemia while working at the South Korean firm are: "Offered money in exchange for the families' agreement not to report their illness as an industrial accidents or contact civic organizations."

Responding to these concerns, Samsung hired US firm, Environ, to conduct a health study exploring working conditions inside its semiconductor factories.

Environ last year reported that there are "no health risks" for workers, with no, "scientific link to the diagnosis of leukemia of several ex-plant workers." The company didn't immediately release any data to support the claim, citing trade secrets.

Transparency?

Just like the brouhaha with Apple, Samsung's critics aren't convinced by this report. "They have not addressed any of the controversial issues and continued to lay out abstract answers. It seems like it was all a huge show," said Kong Jeong-ok, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health and former winner of the American Public Health Association's 2010 Occupational Health & Safety Awards for her work.

What happened next is pretty sad. Banollim's previous court victory had led Korea's Workers' Compensation and Welfare Service (KWCWS) to agree to pay compensation to six workers who claimed to have contracted leukemia while working for Samsung. The release of the Environ report led the KWCWS to appeal, meaning no compensation payments yet for the six sufferers of that killer condition.

It's of particular significance that as part of the Environ investigation all six cases were specifically investigated, as were three production lines at two separate facilities.

Lee Jong-ran responded to the appeal and said: "For the first time in four years, we were able to gain recognition for work-related compensation. It is unacceptable that the agency which is meant to protect the rights of workers is going against a court ruling and appealing."

Published reports

I visited Samsung's website to find its Supplier Responsibility Report in hope of finding Apple-like transparency as to conditions at the company. I came across the company's 2008-2009 Sustainability Report, the most recent I could find. Tagged with the phrase, "Harmony with people, society and the environment" I hoped it would offer some reassurance as to working conditions on the Galaxy production lines.

This statement stood out: "Samsung Electronics shares and cares about its employees' concerns over their health, children's education and post-retirement life and helps them prepare for their future in order to enhance employee satisfaction and provide better working environments. In addition to the basic legal welfare programs such as premium subsidies for National Pension, Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance and Employment Insurance, we also provide medical subsidies, a corporate pension program, work-out facilities and condominium rental services."

To be fair, the company operates a range of schemes which should make it a good place to work. Leadership programs, foreign language courses and more. In 1998 the company was recognized as one of the Top 100 places to work by Fortune. According to Samsung, the accident rate "stood at 0.063% in 2008, substantially lower than the 1.15% Korean manufacturing industrial average accident rate." I could find no more recent figures.

Reassuringly: "Samsung Electronics abides by the international labor standards and local labor regulations to enhance employee value, while eliminating discrimination based on gender, race, religion, social position or payment or illegal labor practices such as child or forced labor at the source."

Unlike Apple's Supplier Responsibility report, Samsung's doesn't go into any depth in terms of working conditions at firms it partners with, though the '98 report does say it runs training programs and has a policy for partners. That's a little like Apple, but without the media attention or the more full disclosure.

Prison plant?

In 2010, one Samsung supplier, KYE, was accused of prison-camp-like working conditions by the Institute For Global Labor and Human Rights. KYE also makes mice for Microsoft. The report described forced labor, sexual harassment, 68-hour working weeks and pay of 65-cents per hour. Workers aren't allowed to visit the bathroom during working hours and share cramped dormitories.

Given Samsung has been in the news within the last 12 months for conditions inside its factories, I spent time attempting to find a complete description of the company's efforts to ensure good and safe working conditions. I didn't find them.

Just like Apple, Samsung says "The health and well- being of our employees is and will remain the top priority for Samsung."

The International Campaign for Health and Labour Rights of Samsung Electronics Workers operates its own website where intermittent reports on working conditions and those at its partner manufacturers are disclosed.

A September report cited cancer cases at various firms, including Magna-chip, Kijoo Industrial. At present, the group has gathered information about 150 victims, among which there are around 50 deaths.

Award-winner

Samsung also faces criticism from elsewhere. Organized since 2000 by Berne Declaration and Friends of the Earth (in 2009 replaced by Greenpeace), "Public Eye reminds the corporate world that social and environmental misdeeds have consequences." Even as the furor concerning working conditions in Apple's iPhone factories intensified, Samsung was one of the firms shortlisted for the "Public Eye People's Award 2012".

"In its factories, Samsung uses banned and highly-toxic substances without informing and protecting its workers. The result: cancer," wrote Public Eye.  The Samsung Accountability Campaign is also highly critical of the company, saying it operates "with impunity".

It is of course fair to say that any big business will attract criticism. If all this proves anything it can only be that the problems faced by Apple within its production partners are not unique.

The debate over worker rights is bigger than Apple

Many argue that Apple's size means it should be under extra pressure to ensure the best possible working practices. With Samsung also being a hugely profitable multinational, perhaps it's time to extend the debate to Apple's competitors too. Before Mike Daisey does his own stand-up vaudeville show about them. There's clearly plenty of published reports he could base his show on.

Apple fan or Apple hater, if you truly care about the rights of workers in the consumer electronics supply chain, it's time to look at conditions across the industry. And it's time the industry made its working conditions reports as transparent as those circulated by Apple.

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