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UN asks Samsung to clarify report of worker ‘intimidation’

Financial Times

UN asks Samsung to clarify report of worker ‘intimidation’ 

Reports allege Korean group silenced Vietnam employees speaking on factory conditions

John Reed in Manila

UN human rights experts have voiced concern about reports that female workers and labour activists had been subjected to “intimidation and harassment” in Vietnam after speaking out about working conditions at Samsung’s two huge manufacturing plants in the south-east Asian country.

In a statement released in Geneva on Tuesday, the UN Human Rights Council said it asked Samsung for clarification on reports that workers in the South Korean company’s two factories in Vietnam were threatened with lawsuits if they talked to people outside the company about working conditions.

The rebuke from the UN is an embarrassment for Samsung and a sensitive issue for Vietnam, a growing hub for low-cost manufacturing where the Korean group is the largest foreign investor.

Samsung’s Vietnamese unit has registered capital of nearly $15bn and employs about 100,000 people, making half of the group’s smartphones, including the flagship Galaxy series.

The UN statement came after workers at Samsung’s Vietnamese plants raised concerns about long hours and unhealthy work conditions at the factories in Vietnam’s northern Bac Ninh and Thai Nguyen provinces, near the capital Hanoi, in a report published by two non-governmental organisations last year.

The report, based on interviews with 45 female workers, painted a picture of overwork at the plants, with staff forced to remain standing for up to 12 hours in noisy workshops, and limited in their bathroom breaks. Some of the women surveyed for the report said they had suffered health consequences associated with unhealthy working conditions, including fatigue and dizziness.

The report raised concerns about workers’ possible exposure to toxic chemicals, but did not find conclusive evidence that they had been exposed to them.

“While an assessment of the findings of the report requires a response by the competent authorities, it is unacceptable that researchers or workers reporting on what they consider to be unhealthy and adequate working conditions are intimidated by private or public officials,” the UN said.

Samsung said in response: “We take the concerns of the UN human rights experts very seriously. We have already taken actions to investigate and will co-operate closely with relevant UN bodies and experts to clarify the matter.”

It added: “As a global manufacturer, we value all of our employees at our manufacturing facilities around the world and are committed to complying with local and international labour standards and regulations.

“We have the global code of conduct and business conduct guidelines that require all of our employees globally to follow in protecting and respecting human rights.”

When asked by the FT about the NGOs’ report after its publication last year, Samsung said that the claim that some employees worked 12-hour shifts was “absolutely false”, and that workers were entitled to “appropriate break times” in keeping with Vietnamese law.

The UN experts also said that researchers who authored the report received demands to present themselves for interviews with government authorities in the communist-ruled country. The report was co-authored by Vietnam’s Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development, and iPen, a Stockholm-based NGO.

Samsung wrote to the Vietnamese group in November after the report’s publication, alleging that it contained “insufficient and unobjective information” on working conditions at the two plants. In the letter dated November 4, seen by the Financial Times, Samsung threatened to sue the individuals and organisations responsible in Vietnam, or ask Vietnamese authorities to open a criminal investigation on “the publication of untrue information”.

The report has not been published in Vietnam, but is available online.

“Vietnam’s rapid economic development over recent years is a notable achievement,” the UN human rights experts said. “Yet, such reports indicating the lack of space for civil society to monitor and challenge abuse committed by companies or authorities are of serious concern.”

Samsung last year declined a request from the FT to visit its Vietnamese factories, citing “security and other issues” and adding that its policy “may not change soon”.

The intervention by UN experts will draw renewed attention to the manufacturing operations of multinational companies working in countries that restrict labour rights and the activities of NGOs.

In November, a key supplier of Apple — Samsung’s main rival — was found to be using illegal student labour in China to assemble the iPhone X.

Song Jong-a contributed to this report