Hwaseong (South Korea) (AFP)
A union at Samsung? The idea seemed unimaginable, as the South Korean smartphone maker has long suppressed any attempt. But Ko Jee-hun, under the watchful eye of a factory guard, distributes leaflets to recruit the first members.
"The battle is just beginning," smiles the employee in the health and safety service of the global semiconductor giant, heavyweight company of the 11th world economy.
For 50 years, Samsung Electronics, the main branch of the country's largest family conglomerate ("chaebol"), has carefully avoided the unionization of its employees - sometimes at the cost of a radical strategy.
But last week, the authorities recognized the creation of the first potentially viable union organization in the group's history, as it is affiliated with the powerful Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU).
"The challenge is not just wages," says Ko Jee-hun, deputy general secretary of the newly created Samsung Electronics National Union. "What we demand is to communicate with management, that our voices are heard, because we are not just components," said the 37-year-old.
On his leaflets, cartoon characters complain about problems with vacations, lunch breaks, early retirement or wage premium reductions.
"The real union has arrived," proclaims the document, which is printed with a QR code for employees to join. But the security guards do not let Mr. Ko pull in front of the doors of the factory, located in Hwaseong (northeast), about 50 kilometers south of Seoul.
Ko Jee-hun must be at the next crossroads. This does not prevent it from being a great success: almost all the employees crossed pick up a leaflet.
- 'Employees with problems' -
The union's goal is to recruit 10,000 members nationwide, nearly 10 percent of Samsung Electronics's workforce. Lee Byung-chul, the founder of Samsung who died in 1987, was known for his fierce opposition to the unions. "Me alive, they will never be allowed," he thundered.
Internal documents from 2012 obtained by a parliamentarian reveal that officials were charged by management to monitor "problem employees". Those trying to create unions. "To avoid being accused of abusive working conditions, dismiss the main leaders before the launch of a union," advised the text.
Long tied hands and feet, aspiring unionists have benefited in recent years from a series of favorable events.
Starting with the election to the South Korean presidency of Moon Jae-in, a former lawyer who defended unions. But also the lawsuit for corruption of Samsung Vice President Lee Jae-yong - the grandson of the founder. "We are much less repressed than before," says Ko Jee-hun.
Samsung Electronics refused to answer AFP's questions.
- 'Boxing Ring' -
An employee wishing to remain anonymous greets the creation of the union. He hopes for better bonuses. But he is also worried about the slowdown in the global semiconductor market, noting that even short delays in production "may result in a significant loss of market share".
"Conducting a collective strike could be fatal to the company," he notes.
It was "anachronistic" for Samsung to be without a union, but the company could "suffer the same fate as the (automaker) Hyundai, shaken every year by strikes," the Korea Times reported in an editorial.
And rising labor costs could undermine its business model, notes Kim Dae-jong, a professor of economics at Sejong University in Seoul.
"With a union, it may be more difficult for the company to make big investments, if the money is used to pay salary increases," said the professor.
Samsung has to live with its times, just as trade unions need to put water in their wine, says Chun Soon-ok, a labor rights activist and former parliamentarian.
In the past, unions and management "considered themselves competitors competing in a boxing ring," she said. "But today is the twenty-first century, they must see themselves as partners and dance together."
© 2019 AFP