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Samsung Vietnam factory report: Is the debate getting worse?

Vietnamese Civil Society Group says “Samsung requests revision of report and intimidates” vs. Samsung “Never met”

4 February 2018, (Informal translation)

On August 31, 2016 at the Samsung Electronics mobile phone assembly plant in Thai Nguyen, Vietnam, at around 2 pm, a 22-year-old female worker, Tam, began complaining of headaches. The company hastily transferred Tam to a nearby military hospital, but Tam died at 5:30 pm of myocarditis. It was a shock to her family. Her brother said, "She said she would come home a few days later in the morning." For a while, Vietnamese society talked about the news of the death of a young female worker in Samsung, a global company. But a few weeks later the death was forgotten, so the problem seemed to end.

But there were people who took Tam's death seriously. CGFED (Research Centre for Gender Family and Environment in Development), a Vietnamese civil society organization, is a representative example. The group began a study on the working environment and treatment of female workers in the Samsung factory in November of the same year. Last November 6th, a report in English appeared on the website of IPEN (International POPs Elimination Network). It is entitled "Stories of Women Workers in Vietnam’s Electronics Industry" and based on interviews of female workers at the Samsung factory.

The report said women workers did not receive copies of labor contracts, worked four days a week on two shifts (day or night shift), worked standing 9 to 12 hours a day, and felt dizzy or fainted during their work. "Policies and actions are needed to prevent harm to workers and the environment from the electronics industry," the researchers advised. 

A flag flies in front of Samsung Electronics’ office/ Yonhap News

Samsung notifies “legal response” before report release 

Samsung Electronics, which received the report, denied the points raised in the report. Samsung Electronics said, "It is unclear whether the female workers interviewed in the report are Samsung factory workers, and there is no data to verify the correlation between various illnesses and work." Samsung said, "the arguments on overtime work or labor contracts in this report are not true."

Samsung obtained the report on November 4th, two days before it appeared on IPEN’s homepage. Samsung electronics explained that it received the report from an overseas media outlet who asked Samsung to check the facts. Samsung Electronics sent an official letter to CGFED and IPEN before the report was issued and warned, "The report did not address the exact realities of the situation. If the report damages our reputation and affects our activities, we have no other option but to take legal action." 

On December 5, 2017, the report was dealt with by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, an international non-governmental organization. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center is an organization that monitors the labor and human rights issues of 6,000 companies worldwide. Samsung responded saying, "The report contains incorrect information. We are in good compliance with local laws."

When the report began to be reported to the press, Samsung Electronics maintained the same stance. Samsung Electronics said on November 24th, "The report of these NGOs is not based on facts, and has not undergone field investigation and confirmation procedures. There was no special problem found in a recent inspection of the work environment by the Vietnamese government." 

Is Samsung's claim that the report is a hoax, true? The results of an investigation by the Vietnamese government are inconsistent with the explanation of Samsung Electronics. According to a report from the Vietnamese news agency, DTI News, on November 27th, the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs of Vietnam said, "Samsung Electronics is basically in compliance with regulations, such as labor contracts, work environment, health exam, and salary, but ‘overwork’ problems were found in both plants.”

According to local media reports, the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs of Vietnam inspected working conditions at Samsung Electronics' factories in Vietnam and found they work an average of 70 hours per week. On the other hand, Vietnamese Labor Law stipulates a maximum of 8 hours a day, 48 hours a week, and prohibits overtime work more than 30 hours per month and over 200 hours per year. At that time, the inspector of the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs asked Samsung Electronics to, "obey labor laws," local media reported. 

The Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs also found some unlawful practices in labor contracts. The Vietnamese government did not punish Samsung, but asked the company to "solve the problem within 60 days." Overwork and labor contract issues were both pointed out by the testimonies of women workers. Joseph DiGangi, a science and technical advisor at IPEN said, "Samsung has said that the report is fake, but the Vietnamese government's findings confirm that our study results related to these issues are true."

Did Samsung try to stop the report release?

CGFED claims Samsung put many types of pressure on them to prevent the publication of the report. Last October, before the report was released, CGFED tried to contact the 45 workers who were interviewed. But most of them could not be reached, and those who did respond said, “I will get into a lot of trouble if the company finds out. Please do not contact me again."

One worker sent a message to CGFED researchers at the time, "I'm sorry I could not answer your call. But I do not want you to contact me again. I do not have anything to say anymore. If the company finds out, I will be fired and may be sued. I'm sorry once again." An official from IPEN said, "It indicates that Samsung is pressuring workers not to give interviews to ‘outsiders.’"

In fact, before the publication of the report, Samsung suggested CGFED and IPEN "meet and discuss the report issue." Samsung sent an official letter to these groups on November 4th with specific proposed dates saying, "We hope that you visit the factory to look at the conditions and discuss this issue."

However, CGFED and IPEN did not accept Samsung's proposal, but posted their report on the IPEN website on November 6th. "I thought it was not appropriate for us to visit factories in situations where Samsung Electronics was threatening workers," said Joseph DiGangi. "Even if we visited the factories, we could not change the stories of the workers we interviewed,” he said.

Samsung Electronics said, "If the report with unclear evidence is published, it could seriously undermine the company's image and reputation, so we tried to talk to them before publishing. From our point of view, what we did was justified." Regarding the suspicion that the company pressured factory workers, Samsung Electronics responded with a question. "We did not know then or now whether real factory workers were interviewed. If real workers were interviewed, then we do not know who they are. How can you pressure workers if you do not know who they are?”

CGFED and IPEN argue that Samsung mobilized the Vietnamese government to suppress the matter. According to an official document of the Vietnamese government on November 9th, the committee that manages foreign direct investment in the factory area wrote, “SEV (Samsung Electronics Vietnam) proposed to discuss the report issue together. Let's meet together on November 15th,” said the agency, demanding attendance. Participants in the meeting would include the Vietnam Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and Samsung Electronics. CGFED and IPEN did not attend the meeting because they thought it was inappropriate that the proposal for the meeting came from request by Samsung Electronics.  

Report on Samsung’s Vietnam factories in a weekly magazine in the US. / The Nation Homepage

Controversy increases even after Samsung’s explanation

Samsung Electronics said, "The contents of the report showed that it was also a local industrial complex issue, so I sent the report to the government management committee and communicated the situation. It was the committee’s own decision to have a meeting. We did not request them to arrange a meeting.”

Samsung Electronics cited CGFED and IPEN’s "non-response" as the main reason the company notified the situation to the Vietnamese government. Samsung Electronics said, "I wanted to contact the organizations since I first received the report, because I wanted to ask about it. I tried to contact those NGOs but it was not successful. I sent two emails proposing to meet, but I received no response before and after the report release."

CGFED and IPEN’s claims are completely opposite to the claims of Samsung Electronics. According to CGFED, two of this group’s activists and two employees of the Samsung Electronics Vietnam Human Resources Team met for about an hour on November 8th in a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was only two days after the report was published on the homepage of IPEN. A CGFED representative said, “There was one Korean and one Vietnamese representative from Samsung Electronics and I received their business cards. I remember the place and time very clearly."

According to a CGFED representative, at that meeting, the Samsung Electronics representatives said, "The report on the website is very different from the facts, so please correct it.” CGFED representatives, however, refused to change the report, saying, "How can we change what 45 women workers testified?" The meeting ended without much success.

CGFED and IPEN insisted that they sent an official letter to Samsung Electronics shortly after the meeting. They said in the letter, "Samsung claims that the report is not accurate and objective, but please tell us which part is wrong. Once you provide your response, then we can make an effective study result." According to CGFED and IPEN, Samsung sent no response. 

The issue continues to grow as both sides have sharply conflicting views and descriptions about the situation before and after the report release. On December 13, 2017, a petition demanding Samsung to stop threatening legal action against the civil society groups that issued the report on Samsung Vietnam was filed on the website, which is headquartered in the United States. As of February 2nd, 94,000 people had signed the petition. The interest of foreign media is also growing. The progressive US weekly magazine, “The Nation” published an article related to the Samsung Electronics plant in Vietnam on January 2nd. In their article entitled, “Was your smartphone made in a sweatshop?” the Nation reported that Samsung threatened workers and civil society groups.

A Samsung official said, "Although there was the mention of legal action in the official letter in the early stage of this matter, we were just trying to prevent the company from being defamed. We have never actually taken legal action, and we provided our opinion to CGFED that we are not planning to take legal action in the future."