Photo: Flickr

Samsung has been busting unions for decades, including by illegal means. This shows how corporations can violate the right to organise in order to avoid disputes about other workers’ rights violations.

Photo: Flickr

The Samsung Group has long promoted a union-free working environment, which has allowed the group to maintain low wages, offer limited to non-existent welfare, impose long working hours, as well as being able to set high production targets.[1]

In December 2013, the IndustriALL Global Union published a number of violations of Samsung workers’ rights disclosed by the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU).[2] These allegations included cases of kidnapping and beating of union leaders and the administration of special training for company management in order to allow Samsung to remain union-free.[3]

Other strategies used by the Samsung Group, which have been revealed in the company’s internal documentation, include the monitoring of so-called ‘problem employees’ and even the creation of ‘loyalist unions’ to prevent the establishment of actual unions.[4] These documents revealed how the union-busting schemes were widespread throughout the company and how high-placed workers were trained to intimidate union members and to block the creation of unions.

In 2016, Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), declared “From the top of its supply chain down, Samsung prohibits the formation of unions by threatening to cancel contracts wherever workers organise”.[5]

In September 2018, 32 Samsung defendants, including former and current employees and executives, such as the board of directors’ Chairman Lee Sang-hoon, were indicted for union-busting activities.[6] The latter was accused of attempting to sabotage a newly formed labour union in 2013.[7] In December 2019, 26 out of 32 defendants were found guilty of union-busting. Lee Sang-hoon and Samsung’s Vice President Kang Kyung-hoon were notably each sentenced to 18 months in prison.[8]

There are signs of change in the policies and practices of Samsung Electronics, including a new supplier code,[9] a public statement by the Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong promising more constructive labour-management relations,[10] training of management, a grievance procedure, and recognition of a strong union at the Repair’s subsidiary of Samsung Electronics,[11] all fairly recent and probably triggered by the lawsuit. In its review of a draft of this case study, Samsung also indicated an increase in the number of unionised workers,[12] which the researchers have not been able to verify. It is too early to tell whether the recent measures will translate into real change for the workers in the Samsung Group.

[1] Kee-won Ock, Wan Kim, and Jae-yeon Lee, “Samsung has come under fire worldwide for its union-busting tactics,” Hankyoreh, June 26, 2019, (accessed October 30, 2019).

[2] GoodElectronics and IndustriALL, “IndustriALL Global Union condemns Samsung for union busting,” December 6, 2013, (accessed October 30, 2019).

[3] GoodElectronics and IndustriALL.

[4] Ock, Kim, and Lee.

[5] International Trade Union Confederation and IndustriALL, “Global reach of Samsung’s ‘medieval practices’ revealed,” October 5, 2016, (accessed October 30, 2019).

[6] “Samsung leaders to face union-busting charges,” Korea JoongAng Daily, September 28, 2018, (accessed October 30, 2019).

[7] Jon Porter, “Samsung Electronics chairman indicted on charges of union sabotage,” The Verge, September 27, 2018, (accessed October 30, 2019).

[8] “Samsung execs sentenced to jail in union-busting case,” Yonhap News Agency, December 17, 2019, (accessed December 17, 2019).

[9] Samsung. “Samsung Electronics Supplier Code of Conduct Version 3.0.” (accessed June 4, 2020)

[10] Samsung Newsroom. “이재용 부회장 입장문,” May 6, 2020. (accessed June 4, 2020)

[11] Jung-a Song, “Signs of change in Samsung’s longstanding ‘no-unions’ stance,” Financial Times, July 29, 2018, (accessed May 27, 2020)

[12] Samsung. “RE: Review Announcement Case Description Samsung,” March 3, 2020. (accessed June 24, 2020)