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Samsung suppliers broke labour laws, but didn't hire kids

Unveils long list of new policies to stop abuses

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Samsung Electronics has said it is now taking “corrective actions” after a month-long audit it set up identified several instances of suppliers breaking local Chinese labour laws, although not-for-profit groups remain sceptical about the prospect of widespread and lasting change.

The investigation, which was instituted after an expose by China Labour Watch (CLW) revealed abuses at supplier HEG Electronics, involved 121 trained Samsung audit staff evaluating 105 suppliers in China, who are responsible for 65,000 employees.

The CLW report back in August claimed HEG was exploiting child workers as young as 14 at its Guangdong plant, and revealed forced and excessive overtime, physical abuse by managers, dangerous conditions, and extremely low pay.

Samsung had the following to say about its investigation:

Samsung did not identify any instance of child labour during the audits after reviewing HR records of all workers aged below 18 and conducting face-to-face ID checks. However, the audit identified several instances of inadequate practices at the facilities, including overtime hours in excess of local regulations, management of supplier companies holding copies of labour contracts, and the imposition of a system of fines for lateness or absences.

The electronics giant unveiled a long list of corrective actions being implemented now or set to come in over the next year or two.

These include a new hiring process to avoid child labour, which requires mandatory face-to-face interviews with all prospects and the use of electronic devices to detect fake IDs.

Planned for the end of the year are things like anonymous staff hotlines to report abuse; mandatory safety equipment and training; prohibition of hiring discrimination; the correction of contract irregularities; and the abolition of a fines/penalty system.

The volume of temporary workers will be capped at 30 per cent of full-time employees and Samsung said it will “eliminate hours beyond legal limits by the end of 2014”.

Samsung also revealed it will have reviewed 144 more of its suppliers by the end of the year, and claimed its audits would be fully independent by 2013.

CLW has previously claimed that widespread abuses in the auditing industry make it difficult to trust the results of such reports.

It had the following response to the Samsung report:

Samsung promises that it will improve labour conditions at its factories, but the key is if and how they can truly institute and monitor the new policies they have established. Samsung uses an audit system to monitor factories, but audits are renowned for their lack of reliability. Instead of audits, Samsung should establish direct channels of communication with its workers, such as worker committees or a worker hotline.

CLW also included some follow-up investigations of its own to highlight the poor working conditions it claims are still endemic at several Samsung-owned and supplier plants in Dongguan and Tianjin.

In particular, CLW’s claims that Samsung-owned plants in Tianjin are still prone to labour violations such as illegally long overtime, under age workers and employment discrimination would seem at odds with the Korean giant’s own conclusions about its plants.

It claimed it manufactures in-house where possible for good reason:

Unlike companies that rely predominantly on the outsourcing of manufacturing, Samsung can maintain its own high standards throughout its in-house manufacturing network to offer world-class working conditions.

Debbie Chan, a project officer at Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), raised similar concerns to CLW on how Samsung can effectively enforce its new rules in a lasting way.

“The fundamental question is how can Samsung implement its code of conduct and the policies on labour rights and what are the consequences if non-compliance is found at its suppliers,” she told The Reg.

“NGOs can expose the problems in the factories, but those are always the tip of the iceberg. Workers should have the right to form democratic trade union to voice out their concerns and defend their rights.” ®

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