Janine Jackson interviewed Michelle Chen about Samsung’s labor and environmental abuses for the November 4, 2016, CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Nightly news reported unblinkingly that the FAA warns there could be criminal charges brought against those who, wittingly or not, try to bring their Galaxy Note 7 smartphone on a plane. Some of those phones have been known to explode or catch fire, and that poses an unacceptable hazard to people.
Well, you can read a dozen stories about the troubled Samsung devices and never learn that they can endanger people even when they work as advertised, but it isn’t consumers who are imperiled.
Here with the rest of the story on Samsung is Michelle Chen. She’s a contributing writer at The Nation, contributing editor at In These Times and at Dissent magazine, as well as co-producer and co-host of Dissent’s podcast Belabored. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Michelle Chen.
Michelle Chen: Hi.
Well, I was startled to see your article “Exploding Phones Are Just One of Samsung’s Safety Liabilities” in The Nation, because Samsung has been getting what passes for hot seat coverage lately. One AP story said that even before the messy recalls, Samsung was being urged to improve its transparency and corporate governance. But then that turned out to be about whether the son of the chairman of the board should be allowed to join the board. Labor activists, though, and others have been concerned about Samsung for some time, and not about phones catching fire. Tell us what some of those concerns are.
Yeah, I was looking specifically at reports on Samsung’s global operations, primarily in manufacturing, that was published recently by the International Trade Union Confederation. It examined labor practices on several continents, countries ranging from Brazil to China to Taiwan, Vietnam, and of course the United States. And they’re all countries with vastly different economic systems, vastly different regulatory regimes. But when it comes to Samsung manufacturing systems, they all follow the same framework of certain draconian policies that tend to degrade working conditions on a really global scale.
I don’t think people really realize just how wide Samsung’s net is cast, because they do work with a lot of sub-suppliers that they contract out to, much like Apple does. In addition, Samsung has kind of flown under the radar, because Apple tends to get a lot more media attention, both good and bad.
But now that Samsung’s sort of in the hot seat, I did think it was curious that the labor conditions there were not getting more attention, given that people were really afraid of their phone spontaneously combusting when, in fact, there’s been maybe a handful of those incidents, and none of them really anything close to the scale of the types of human rights violations that we’re seeing on a daily basis, fully above board, in Samsung’s no-union factories.
That “no-union” seems to be very important. I’m going to get back to that, what happens when they try to form a union. But what are some of the conditions that you’re talking about, some of the work conditions that folks are complaining about?
They range from things that are actually harming their health to things that are just very poor working conditions. And this goes across the board, even for countries that are relatively poor like Vietnam, as well as in Korea itself. And these are manufacturing facilities that operate on rapid fire, on-demand level, so there’s a breakneck pace of work.
And they’re often on very precarious contracts. Some of them are considered contingent laborers, so they do not have the vested rights and protections that ordinary workers would have on the job as full employees.
Samsung has found all sorts of creative ways, depending on which regulatory system they’re working under, to evade labor contract law and keep workers on these short-term contracts. So they’re constantly cycling through these short-term jobs, even though they may be more or less permatemps, which has been an increasingly common phenomenon here in the US, but elsewhere it’s also increasingly widespread, where you have these jobs that used to be maybe decent manufacturing jobs, that used to be full-time work with union representation, and now they’re being deskilled, outsourced, and atomized into these short-term stints. And that’s very dangerous in terms of both the working conditions there, the physical working conditions and the mental working conditions, as well as their overall economic security.
And on the public health side, there are serious environmental risks that have been flagged by official investigations that have been presided over by the Korean government. But again, because the company is so opaque in its operations and its management, its managerial style, which is based on this Korean cartel system called the chaebol, it’s extremely antiquated and extremely closed, and it’s hard to figure out what’s going on behind closed doors.
This has gotten a lot of bad press from the corporate end, because it’s seen as bad corporate governance. But I am more worried about what it’s doing to workers’ bodies. Because when there’s no accountability in management, it’s really difficult to A) advocate on workers’ behalf and B) even know what’s going on when workers are, say, dying of mysterious cancers and other things that have been found on the Samsung assembly line.
Yeah, you write about the mysterious illness that some particularly young women who were working on semiconductors have been coming down with. But then also psychosocial problems, and in fact another thing that you document is a worker’s suicide, a metal worker. Tell me a little bit about that. The idea that workers would actually take their own lives really speaks to something deeply wrong in the system.
Yeah. This was actually back in October of 2013. There’s a 32-year-old worker who reportedly “self-immolated after being pushed into extreme hardship through targeted auditing,” is the quote from the report, which is I think a euphemism for being basically demonized and pilloried by his management for simply trying to organize workers at his workplace. I don’t know much about the worker’s background, but I imagine he was probably a leader of sorts among his co-workers. And for him to fall into those depths of despair really, I think, indicates something about the kind of psychological climate that prevails within this corporate structure.
It actually sparked a lot of protests after the death, because people were saying, look, if workers are being driven to these extremes, then what does that say about the day-to-day work that we’re doing? Evidently Samsung has maintained its no-union policy, and that goes really across the board. And again, because there’s no union representation, it becomes sort of a chicken-and-the-egg question.
The unions have been unable to organize, at least above ground. From what I hear, based on this ITUC report, it seems that there is some underground organizing going on. But again, when you can be fired at any time, that’s really not an ideal situation when you want to build a global movement, which is what these workers really need. Because their employer is a multinational giant, basically, and unless there’s some global baseline for workers rights across Samsung’s supply chain, these issues are never really going to be remedied on a systemic level. So rather than this race to the bottom, what a lot of these global labor federations are saying is that there needs to be cross-sectoral, horizontal organizing across the supply chain.
It’s not, obviously, just Samsung. This is a problem that is going to be — you call it a multinational union-free zone, and I think this is the way we’re seeing corporations behave. Countries have laws, they might be labor laws, environmental laws, but then these corporations, it’s like Vatican City or something, they’re almost a country unto themselves. I mean, they really can operate however they want to, in complete disregard for the prevailing conditions or laws in the country that they’re in. And that’s Walmart and that’s, you know, H&M, and everybody else as well. So it sounds as though we really don’t have the mechanisms to govern these entities.
Yeah, and it’s important to underscore that. This is a model that free-trade deals promulgate around the world, right? And the US is a chief purveyor of this, and we have a trade deal with South Korea. And unions on both sides of the Pacific have been mobilizing against these free trade deals, because they understand that it’s really not about lowering tariffs or promoting imports or exports. It has much less to do with the sort of concrete material aspects of commerce and/or actual production of things that are useful, and it’s much more about expanding corporate power on this sort of supranational level.
Most of the free-trade deals that have been pushed so far, including the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership and the TiSA and all these other, this whole alphabet soup of trade deals that are coming up and being negotiated behind closed doors by international trade ministers, one of the bulwarks of this model is an investor tribunal system that allows corporations to basically act as states and sue other states — when they find that some sort of regulatory stricture is impinging on their absolute right to free trade. So that sounds abstract on some level, and it echoes this libertarian notion that the best kind of trade is unbridled and free-flowing capitalism across borders. But what open borders mean for corporations is really about restricting workers’ rights and restricting environmental regulations and all these other protections that states have built up over the years precisely to check the power of big business. And that’s something that really goes beyond Samsung at this point.
We’ve been speaking with Michelle Chen. You can find her article, “Exploding Phones Are Just One of Samsung’s Safety Liabilities,” online still at TheNation.com. Michelle Chen, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.