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Was Your Smartphone Built in a Sweatshop?
An investigation of two Samsung factories in Vietnam shows the darker side of the global tech supply chain.
An in-depth investigation of Vietnamese Samsung production facilities peels back the shrink-wrap of Big Tech to reveal an extremely vulnerable, mostly female workforce that may be sacrificing its neurologic and reproductive health in digitized Dickensian workshops to make cutting-edge smartphones.
For the workers raising children, currently half the female workforce, the Samsung factories deliberately separate mothers from families through the dormitory system. Workers are kept in group housing on isolated compounds, where the company prohibits children from living with parents. Instead, “children live with family members in another town or city.”
Such abuses might be treated more seriously if they took place closer to Samsung’s headquarter. The company has been embroiled in a high-profile lawsuit over the case of a woman who died of a brain tumor after working at a Korea-based facility from 1997 to 2003—part of a pattern of toxic exposures at Samsung factories. According to DiGangi, longtime workplace-safety advocates say the situation in Vietnam “reminds them strongly of Samsung here in Korea 10 years ago.” The pattern signals that as Samsung expands its global empire and intensifies mass production of new models, the supply chain is slipping backward on occupational-safety conditions. Even in South Korea, workers have for years seen their claims for injury-related compensation thwarted by the company, which has a reputation for cronyism, corrupt political connections, and intense corporate secrecy.
With no real independent trade unions and severe restrictions on labor organizing generally, Vietnamese workers have limited recourse compared to their South Korean counterparts. Samsung has reportedly threatened workers with dismissal and lawsuits if they continue to speak out about working conditions.
Samsung has cautiously addressed IPEN’s findings. In a letter to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, the company argued that the study was inaccurate and that Samsung’s own “on-site audits of the facilities in December 2016 and June 2017…show a reality that refutes the violations” reported by IPEN researchers.
The Vietnamese labor ministry recently conducted its own audit of the facilities and reported on several labor violations, including excessive hours. But IPEN argues that “large gaps still remain” because the government has not addressed numerous occupational-safety concerns, including chemical contamination.
IPEN hopes Vietnam’s government pursues deeper investigations. But economic factors often shape the politics of multinational investment for exporting countries. “The climate in the country is one that’s very protective of foreign direct investment, and since Samsung is such a large contributor to that, they are quite careful about how the company is treated,” DiGangi says.
With major investments at stake in Vietnam, Samsung may be focused more on corporate damage control for its brand than on addressing damage to workers’ health. Samsung has threatened IPEN’s local NGO partners with legal action, though the researchers stand by their findings.
DiGangi hopes the report will stimulate greater public awareness about the working conditions in the global tech supply chain. Consumer pressure on the company to improve on labor issues could perhaps spur Samsung to at least “publicly state that workers have a right to speak about their working conditions,” he says. “That’s something that a trade union would typically insist upon but the company should state that.” Future research should be done transparently, DiGangi adds, “with the involvement of workers themselves” as truly independent auditors, since they “have the best sense of their own work and their own jobs.”
For now, the workers continue to be silenced, and the massive global demand for the devices they produce will speak loudest for Samsung’s executives. As long as consumers continue to see their phones as indispensable, whatever the cost to workers’ health, and multinational companies treat their workers’ bodies as disposable, the message from the market to the workers is still: “Get used to it.”