Taking Down Samsung’s No Union Policy: The Samsung Electronics Service Union

On July 29th, The International Strategy Center’s Policy and Research Coordinator Dae-Han Song and Communications Coordinator Hwang Jeong Eun met with Sunyoung Kim, the chair of the Samsung Electronic Service Union for the Yeongdeungpo District in Seoul of the Korean Metal Workers Union to talk about the union’s struggle and their trailblazing as the first union recognized by Samsung.

Can you give us a brief background to the Samsung Electronic Service Union?

We started the union because of the harsh working conditions. Sometimes, we might work 12 to 13 hours a day, and still not make the minimum wage. You might come to work on Saturday or Sunday from 8 to 6 PM and come out on the minus. Why? Because you didn’t get paid, but you still had to pay for lunch and gas. You even had to pay for your own training from Samsung. In addition, our work is dangerous, whether it is installing air-conditioning, or climbing a wall, or working with live electricity. Despite these dangers, the company doesn’t provide any safety equipment. We have to wear neckties even when working with moving parts. They force us to wear dress shoes even when working on a roof in the rain. Why? For the sake of maintaining a clean and professional image.

How can a person work 12 to 13 hours a day and not even get paid the minimum wage?

It’s a system based on commission. There is no base pay. You are basically a freelancer. You come in to work, and if there is work you work if there is not then you just stay in the office. However, while a real freelancer can decide whether or not to show up to the office, we have a specified clock in and clock out time. When there is work, we just keep working. In the summer, there’s a lot of work: air conditioning, refrigerators. So, we just keep on working until everything is done. Not only is working such long hours exhausting, it is also exhausting doing so in the summer heat. Sometimes you don’t get home until 12 AM and can’t even rest on the weekends. That’s when we make our money that carry us through the fall, winter, spring when there is little work. In these off seasons we might sometimes just get one or two calls in a day and since we get paid by commission, if we don’t work, we don’t get paid.

You have to at least pull off 5 or 6 jobs a day to make 1.5 million (about $1,500) a month. And that doesn’t include gas, your tools, your training which you have to pay out of pocket. I’ve worked at Samsung Electronics Service for about 15 years. So, in some ways, I am part of the upper echelons of the workers. I made 50 to 60 million won a year on average. So, the pay was enough. I worked hard and worked until late. I also accumulated a lot of know-how and developed relationships with customers. But, I was part of the minority, maybe I fell within the 15 percent of highly skilled and experienced workers. The rest, they are not in the middle, they are all at the bottom. There is no middle in this system. There are those that make a lot and those that don’t make enough. Those on the lower levels make about 20 million a year. That’s why the conditions are so poor.

The commission system pits us against each other. If I finish my work just a little faster, then I can finish two instead of one. The majority don’t have enough steady work. There’s not much one can do, other then parcel out one or two of my assignments to them. The company is unwilling to take responsibility for these workers.

When you are organizing a union, you have to build worker solidarity, but the system itself creates competition among the workers. Did that make it difficult to organize?

If we look at our system, we can see that it breeds selfishness. In the Yeongdeungpo branch, we originally organized 80 workers. But, it collapsed and only 24 members remain. The owner of the service branch planted the seeds of doubt: “Do you really think you can beat Samsung?” “Just do your work properly.” “I’ll give you more work if you quit the union.” “I’ll give you less work if you don’t.” So, 70% of the union members dropped out. When Choi Jong Beom killed himself, it had a huge impact on us. Before, we were just a Kakaotalk (a smartphone messaging application) union, but after his death those of us that remained began to meet in Seoul. So, while there weren’t many of us left, our union grew stronger. While we might be a fraction of what we were in the beginning, we are stronger now than before.

What are your demands?

At first we were demanding that we be made into Samsung regular workers. Samsung was directing us, training us, so it just made sense that we would be working directly under them. Now our demands are just improved working conditions. Being an engineer, fixing things with my hands, was my childhood dream. But, the company only cares about using us to make money. We want Samsung to appreciate and nurture our skills. That means paying us decently. We are asking for a basic wage in addition to the commission. Ultimately, we want to move towards a fixed monthly wage. Workers get stressed not knowing how much they will make in a particular month. Also, we want people’s skill and experience to be acknowledged. Right now, there is no difference given between a one year or a twenty year worker. They are treated as the same. After the collective bargaining, about 50% of our problems have been solved.

Where is the struggle right now?

When we went back to our service centers after concluding an agreement, the owners of the service centers say they will not recognize the union. They refuse to honor it. Under the agreement, if workers bring their receipts for gas, cell phone usage, for their meals, then the owner needs to reimburse them. The owners refuse to recognize this and just say, “We paid for it already. I’m going to keep paying you as I did before.” So, we are struggling against the branch owners. But ultimately, this isn’t about the branch owners, it’s about Samsung who is directing them.

What’s next?

So right now we have about 1,600 Samsung Electronics Service union members. Previously, we had about 6,000. Many left because they are afraid of what the company will do to them. So our focus will be to organize them. It hasn’t yet sunk in, but people around us tell us we should be proud that we, subcontracted workers, broke Samsung’s 76 year union-free history. I think it is these people that stood in solidarity with us that played a huge part in our victory. Many of them are more experienced union organizers, and we are a new union, so these seniors give us guidance on where we should go, how we should organize workers and the non-unionized centers. On August, we are going to organize the non-unionized centers.

Have things improved?

So according to the collective bargain agreement, the company needs to follow the labor laws. That means that if we work over 40 hours a week, we should get overtime. We are supposed to get paid holidays. And as I mentioned before, the company should refund 100% of the costs of gas, parking, equipment, cell phone, and leased cars. We also won a basic 1.2 million won a month wage. But, the best thing is that the owner can’t unilaterally change work policy: he has to negotiate with the union. They can’t just take us for granted. I mean all this should just be the given.

So what’s still missing?

The first thing is that we don’t yet have a 100% fixed wage. The second one is that the collective bargaining agreement contains vague and difficult to understand wording. We are an inexperienced union and because we rushed the negotiations, there is a lot in the contract that is vague and up for interpretation. That’s what we were struggling for in the 40 day occupation at Seocho and what we are fighting for at the branch level now: a more clear collective bargaining agreement.

How can people in Korea or abroad help?

I learned that there are 10 million irregular workers. In the case of Samsung and LG, they are a world class corporation, but in their pursuit of profit they outsource and sub-contract. This wouldn’t be a problem if they paid decent wages and created a stable system. But that’s not the reality. Companies like Samsung are shiny and nice on the outside, but the inside is different. When I tell people about the working conditions that I face, they ask me, “Are you telling me that there are still companies like that?” I want to tell the world about the conditions we face working in these corporations so that we can stop them guard our rights. I want to be a dignified worker that can proudly wear the company logo on my shirt.

Now because of our struggle, those that install internet for SK, or LG U+ they are also awakening to the injustice of their situation. They are realizing how similar and unjust their work is which does not guarantee a basic wage. I want to let those in Korea and abroad know our conditions so that we can improve them.

Ablaze with the Spirit of Jeon Tae Il: Stories from the Front-lines

By Dae Han Song

November 9-10 marked the largest annual worker mobilization in Korea, the Worker Day Gathering. It is held in the memory of the 1970 self-immolation of Jeon Tae Il whose actions smashed the wall of silence and exposed the horrid working conditions of Korea’s industrialization. His life of struggle and his self-immolation sparked the Korean labor movement and continues to inspire it. In commemoration of this Worker’s Weekend, the Media Team spent the weekend learning about current workers’ struggles and participating in the Worker Day Gathering and solidarity events.

JEI Dispatch Tutor Workers

1         JEI Workers Minhee Yeo and Suyeong Oh speak about their 2000 days of occupation
and 200 of aerial occupation

The JEI workers victory on August 26th, 2013 marked the first time that “Special Workers” [legally recognized as self-employed freelancers (e.g. golf caddies, insurance sales people)] were recognized as employees and given the right to collective bargaining. Despite legal, mental, and physical harassment by JEI corporate employees and hired thugs, the struggle of the dispatch tutors persisted through 6 winters, spanning 2202 days making it the longest occupation in Korea and possibly the world. In the last 202 days, two of the occupiers, Minhee Yeo and Suyeong Oh, elevated the struggle by occupying a 15 meter church bell tower facing the JEI headquarters. On August 26th, they finally came down after their union was recognized and the fired workers reinstated.

 Samsung Trade Union Struggle and Cho, Chong Beom

 2A Media Team member paying his respects to Choi, Chong Beom
in a shrine inside the KCTU building

Choi, Chong Beom took his life in protest on October 31, 2013. He was a Samsung Electronics Service technician for four years. He was targeted for harassment and his workload and pay cut after joining the Samsung Trade Union. The Samsung Trade Union is seeking union recognition and collective bargaining. Samsung is notorious as a union-hostile company and continues in its attempts to dismantle the union. The struggle for recognition and collective bargaining continues.

 The Ssangyong Motor Workers Struggle and the Catholic Priests Association for Justice

3 A shrine for the 24 people that died due to
stress related illness or by taking their own lives

On May 22nd, 2009, after 6 months of unpaid wages, planned mass layoffs, and the company’s unwillingness to negotiate, Ssangyong Motor Workers Union (a branch of the National Metal Workers Union) occupied a Ssanyong Motor Paint factory. Despite the brutal police and company hired thug repression, the occupation lasted 77 days and ended with a settlement in which 48% of the 974 “redundant” workers were promised unpaid leave (with the promise of future reinstatement) or be transferred to sales positions, and the remaining 52% would be given voluntary resignation or shifted to spin-off companies. However, the company has failed to honor its deal prompting the union to begin an aerial occupation of an electric pylon near the factory on November 20, 2012. The aerial occupation ended on May 9, 2013 due to severe health deterioration of the occupiers. The occupation continues in front of the Ssangyong Motor Company factory in Pyongtaek.

[For an 18 minute documentary of the Ssangyong Motor Union occupation
part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1JMGTzZDiM and
part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtwkqGgkxoc]

 4A Ssangyong Auto Worker bares the demands on his back:

Let’s return to the factory!
President Park, Keep Your Promise of a Parliamentary Investigation!
Re-instate laid-off Ssangyong Auto Workers!
Regularize Irregular Workers!

5 Priests of the Catholic Priest Association for Justice hold their 217th mass for the resolution
 of the Ssangyong Motor Workers Struggle and for Laid-off Workers

The Catholic Priests Association for Justice held a mass every day at 6:30 PM at Daehan Gateacross the street from the Seoul City Hall Plaza, for the Ssangyong Motor Workers and all laid-off workers. The Catholic Priest Association for Justice first started in protest of the Yushin Constitution during the Park Chung Hee dictatorship in the 1970s and continued on the democratization struggle. They are actively involved in various struggles including the Gangjeong Village struggle against the Naval Base. The CPAJ “takes to the streets, alongside the poor and the oppressed, for their liberation.” On November 18, 2013 amidst tears and reminiscing they concluded their final daily mass, their 225th one.

 Jeon Tae Il

6 Jeon Tae Il sacrificed himself in self-immolation            

7Chrysantheums, incense, and soju offerings
at Pyung Hwa (Peace) Market                     

Jeon Tae Il came from poverty. At the age of 16, he began work in the textile sweatshops of the Peace Market. As he experienced and witnessed the horrid working conditions, he fought to improve conditions in four ways: “First, he became a cutter [a type of de-facto manager] and used his position to try to take care of the young factory workers; a kind-hearted approach. Second, having investigated the conditions in the Peace Market he appealed to the Ministry of Labour, demanding that they ensure the Labour Standards Law was implemented. Third, he conceived the notion to establish a model business in which the Labour Standards Law would be observed. Fourth, he protested and struggled actively against the oppressive forces that opposed the reform of working conditions; this is the strategy he opted for in the autumn of 1970.” His self-immolation shattered the media blockade and sparked public outrage and protest. The Worker Day Gathering is held in the memory of Jeon Tae Il’s sacrifice. His biography “A Single Spark” can be downloaded at http://www.kdemo.or.kr/eng/book/data/8301

 The Great Worker Gathering

     8    Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU)            

9  Jeon Tae Il watches over the workers
join in the Worker’s Day Gathering

On October 24th, the government outlawed the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU). The government accused the KTU of breaking the law because it refused to exclude, from its 60,000 membership, 22 teachers fired (by the previous conservative Lee Administration) for taking political stances: in Korea, government employees are not allowed to take political stances. Delegalization means that the union would not be able to negotiate with school authorities and that billions of won of government support would be lost: in Korea, the employer, in this case the government, is mandated to pay the costs of the union. After a fierce struggle by the KTU and supporters, the government has postponed delegalization until next year. The KTU is fighting to maintain its union recognition.

10 Fighting Against the Legal and Social Order Boundaries

 11“Do Not Cross this Legal and Social Order Line”

Since the 1997 IMF crisis, labor flexibilization has created a vulnerable irregular labor force (i.e. workers hired on an annual basis) and labor law amendments have divided worker power by allowing multiple unions, including false pro-company unions. This has dealt a grave blow to Korea’s labor movement. The central theme of this year’s Worker Day Gathering was breaking through the legal and social order boundaries that stifle, constrict, and debilitate the labor movement. For a full list of the translated demands: https://solidaritystorieskr.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/workers-day-gathering-november-910-demands-and-slogans/

12 Samsung Workers Marching Holding Choi, Cheong Beom portraits and pickets that read:
“Samsung Guarantee the Rights of Worker Unions to Organize”

Choi, Chong Beom, the Samsung Service worker, joined Jeon Tae Il and the countless martyrs – their spirits present in the gathering. Choi, Chong Beom’s final note read:

“I, Choi, Chong Beom have suffered greatly working at Samsung Service. I couldn’t live because I was so hungry. Seeing those around me suffering was hard. So, while I cannot do like Jeon Tae Il did, I too have chosen his path. I hope that it helps.”