“We humbly acknowledge that corporate views on unions have historically not been in line with society's expectations. “ It took nearly twenty-four hours for the South Korean conglomerate Samsung, to react, Wednesday December 18, to the conviction – the day before – of Lee Sang-hoon, chairman of the board of directors of its flagship, Samsung Electronics, and its executive vice president, Kang Kyung-hoon. The two men were sentenced to eighteen months in prison for having labored to prevent any union activity.
Twenty-six other executives, out of 32 who were charged, were found guilty and punished. On December 13, Kang was sentenced to sixteen months in prison for similar crimes in Everland, an amusement park managed by Samsung C&T, the construction industry of the conglomerate.
These sentences – announced while the chaebol leader, Lee Jay-yong, is on trial for corruption – conclude a procedure of more than six years, launched after the revelations, in 2013, of the deputy of the Justice Party (left, at the time in opposition), Sim Sang-jeung. The latter had unveiled a document of 150 pages detailing the management of human resources of Samsung.
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To discourage union formation, leaders targeted “at risk” employees by cutting their wages. They commissioned inquiries into their private lives and used facts, debt or even pregnancy, to push them to the start or to silence them. Lee Sang-hoon and Kang Kyung-hoon were financial directors at the material time.
Historically, the conglomerate has done everything to prevent the creation of unions. “Me alive, they will never be allowed”, said its founder, Lee Byung-chul in 1987. Samsung wanted to avoid ending up in a situation similar to that of the manufacturer Hyundai, affected by almost annual strikes.
Several cases have forced him to reconsider his position, including that of dozens of workers at his semiconductor factories, who have fallen seriously ill and sometimes died for being massively exposed to dangerous chemicals. The scandal had highlighted the vulnerability of employees, who had to rely on the support of an association, Sharps (Support for the law and health of employees in the semiconductor industry), to lead their fight . The group had settled the case in 2015 by creating a compensation fund.
November 18, when Samsung Electronics had just celebrated – the 1st November – 50e anniversary of its creation, the city of Suwon, bastion of Samsung in the south of Seoul, validated the creation of the first viable trade union organization of the group, because affiliated to the powerful Federation of trade unions of Korea (FKTU).