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Samsung’s toxic work culture exposed on the heels of Galaxy Note 7 disaster

The recent leak of a presentation that purports to show how poorly Samsung treats its low-level workers couldn’t have come at a worse time for the company. Not only is its brand reeling after shutting down production of its flagship Galaxy Note 7, but millions of customers need to decide whether to exchange theirs for another Samsung product, or switch to a phone from another company.

The presentation, leaked by the International Trade Union Confederation (you can read it for yourself here), appears to be one given to Samsung’s management that suggests using very aggressive tactics to quash any attempts by workers to form authentic labor unions — including by forming shill, pro-management unions as a preemptive tactic. Workers are painted as adversaries, especially those who complain.

The presentation is riddled with poor phrasing and typos. But peppered throughout are military-style terms for the tactics. These include “emergency countermeasures,” “defense force,” “defoliate,” “induce internal conflicts,” and “close surveillance of troublemakers.”

Other portions of the presentation hint at the need to make sure there is no evidence of union suppression, to help prevent criminal prosecution. There are also slides chronicling worker abuse by management, but without any real conclusion or call to action, so it is hard to know what to make of them. Several other slides deal with addressing sexual harassment, and recommend a “thorough investigation, …, punishing offender and taking care of victim.” That certainly sounds promising, although it is couched in terms of acting to prevent damage to its image, and not any general sense of moral outrage.

The Samsung described in this document is world’s apart from the one I deal with here in Silicon Valley, and even from the engineers I’ve met who work for Samsung in Korea. The company’s US headquarters in San Jose is a model — with an excellent, subsidized cafeteria; an entire floor devoted to workout facilities; and some of the most modern office space design in the valley. There are ping-pong tables and sleep pods in the lounge. Clearly, high-value tech employees are treated quite differently than the lower-level staff among Samsung’s estimated 1.5 million employees worldwide.

Unfortunately, for those of us addicted to technology, there aren’t any completely blameless companies. Even Apple, often held up as the Tron “I fight for the user” of high-tech, has had its share of controversy over employment practices at the factories in China where its phones are manufactured. However, unlike Samsung and others, Apple took the complaints seriously, and addressed them in credible ways. Motorola used to make its flagship phones in the USA — with much stricter work rules than those found where phones are usually made — but poor sales have put an end to that. In the meantime, given Samsung’s weak track record in responding to issues, I don’t expect them to say much about this recent leak. But it is another wake up call to think about where our amazing tech devices come from.

[Note: The linked PDF has some formatting issues, but you can also read the leaked PowerPoint]

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