Suicide and Class Struggle in South Korea

17. Jun 2014

On 11 June, 2014, Jyllands-­Posten published an analysis from DanWatch of the national pride of South Korea, Samsung. Samsung is the second largest producer of tablets and cell phones in the world, but yet another suicide among the employees reminds us that the price of success can be high. Read the analysis.

He drove into an empty parking lot, set fire to a pile of coal in the bottom of his car and lay down to wait for the smoke to put an end to his life. He left two letters in which he tried to explain.

Life became difficult for the 34­-year-­old Yeom HoSeok, just as it did for the then 32-­year-­old Choi Jong­beom who ended his life in a similar way last Fall. Suffocated by the smoke from the burning coal in his car. Or the two workers from Samsung’s Tangjeon factory who jumped from the 13th. floor in January, 2001. One of them, Kim Joo hyun, was only 26 years old.

All four worked for Samsung, and they are just a few of many in an industry with a grim reputation. In Apple’s Foxconn factories, 18 workers attempted suicide in 2010, of whom 14 succeeded in their tragic project.

The suicide rates in Asia are generally high, but when people jump from buildings in sheer desperation or when they choose to suffocate alone in their cars, we see the horrible symptoms of an industry that creates unhealthy conditions for those who keep it going day after day.

Those who leave a suicide note write about an unbearable workload. Harassment or isolation because they ask for equal rights for everyone. Life has become to hard and they are unable to go on with the immense pressure of performance and productivity. One of the workers in Apple’s Foxconn factory allegedly committed suicide because he accidentally broke the prototype for the iPhone 4s.

Kim Joo hyun, who was working at Samsung, had recently been on sick leave with a stress­related depression because he was working 14­15 hours per day. On his first day back at work, he ran up to the 13 th. floor and jumped out from the edge of the building.

Yeom HoSeok was working until Saturday 17 May at Samsung Electric Service. At the same time, he was in the process of negotiating agreements with the management at Samsung on behalf of 1,600 colleagues; no easy task in a company that has actively fought against trade unions since its founding in 1938.

In the suicide note to his parents, he wrote: “I can no longer watch other people’s sacrifices and suffering, or the hard times experienced by those who’re union members, so I’m going to sacrifice myself. (…) I have a final wish. I don’t want to be buried before there is progress for the workers at Samsung Electric Service”.

The Samsung Group in particular is notorious for a “no union”­policy that stems from the founder, Lee Byung­chul, and which was passed on by his son, the 72­year­old Lee Geun Hee, who is now in a coma after a heart surgery at the Samsung Medical Center.
Samsung’s “no union”­strategy is described in the internal document “S Group Labor Management Manual”, which was first leaked to the press in 2012 and which explains that the workers should be tricked into quitting any union activities and, if this does not work, harassed into quitting their job so that the company is not required to legitimize a layoff.

There are many terrible stories such as this, and they are incomprehensible in a Danish context. Workers who wish to organize in order to improve their working conditions are systematically monitored, their phones are tapped, and they are followed around at work and in their spare time.
Workers who are harassed in terms of a massive amount of overtime work at a lesser wage, or who are completely isolated at their workplace by both colleagues and management, are what is called “wangta” in Korean, until they themselves choose to quit; or until they, in utter desperation, choose to take their own life. These stories are rarely picked up by the Korean news media and even less so do they succeed at court trials.

In a country such as South Korea, which has achieved a staggering economic growth during the past 25­30 years on market terms, a company such as Samsung, a family dynasty based on a combination of Confucianism and government collaboration and which is responsible for little more than 20 percent of South Korea’s total export, enjoys great leverage in all levels of society.

South Korea is often called ”The Republic of Samsung” and this not only refers to political influence but also to sheer size. In South Korea alone, the Samsung Group consists of 78 different companies, including media platforms and hospitals, and the company has its own apartment complex, Samsung City.

When top figures at Samsung admitted to bribery of officials at the highest level in 2008, the entire management went unpunished because the state prosecutor, Cho Joon Woong, determined that it would “damage the national economy” as he expressed it on national television.

The losers in the economic success story are the workers who work 14­15 hours per day to produce cell phones and tablets for the global market, 89 million units in the first quarter of 2014 alone. They have to jump from the 13th floor to get attention.
When Yeom took his life on 17 May, his salary had been cut from DKK 3,500 in March to barely DKK 2,000 in April. The minimum wage in South Korea is almost DKK 5,430. A few Korean media outlets, such as Kyunghyang News, dare to insinuate that Yeom’s salary was cut because he insisted that 1,600 workers at Samsung Electric should be entitled to negotiate collective rights.

In his two suicide notes, one to his parents and one to the union, Yeom requested that his memorial ceremony should be performed by the union members so that his death would contribute to the struggle for worker’s rights. On Sunday 18 May, 300 police officers showed up at the Gangnam Funeral Home in Seoul to remove the body in clear violation of the wishes of the deceased and his mother.

At the memorial ceremony, 25 union members were arrested after having been assaulted with teargas, and the arrest came to signify the beginning of a three­day demonstration in front of Samsung’s headquarters, where more than 500 union members and workers mourned together under the surveillance of even more police.

On 22 May, three members of the same union was arrested, including the leader, whose house was surrounded by the police at 3AM. Thus, a deceased worker’s final wish was ignored and negotiations about collective rights for 1,600 workers were effectively postponed indefinitely.

During the past two weeks, there have been demonstrations at a number of places around Seoul. The protests vary in participants and political content, though they appear to share a similar goal.

Hundreds of mourners and angry Koreans demonstrated against how President Geun­hye Park handled a ferry disaster that cost the lives of more than 300 people back in April, including a majority of children on a school excursion.

The load of the ferry was three times as heavy as permitted. The security was terrible and members of the crew fled after having requested the passengers to remain on the ferry. The coast guard’s response was far too slow. Afterwards, several members of the crew have been charged with murder, and the reward for the man who owned the ferry and who has now disappeared, Yoo Byung­eun, has been raised to $500,000.

The demonstrations resound with the same demands for recognition and respect for the rights of the individual person. A South Korea that does not let its citizens drown in favour of a valuable cargo on a ship or that does not permit companies to take advantage of and violate their workers to the extent that death becomes an attractive alternative in their lives.