Workers’ Struggles in Electronic Industry

Electronics is one of the fastest growing industries today. It has been generating a rapidly growing range of products and services that are increasingly used in almost every human activity. It has completely changed the way people live and interact.

Deeply entwined in our social fabric, electronics products and systems support critical aspects of communication, education, finance, government among others. Thousands of companies from many countries contribute to the industry on a daily basis. Even a single product can contain components and software manufactured by various companies in many different countries.

Due to relative ease of capital mobility, the industry has many ways to engage in strategies of outsourcing and off-sourcing. Global sourcing is therefore very common where factories can be relocated easily and produces a wide variety of end products. Global value chains in the electronics industry are more geographically extensive and dynamic than in any other manufacturing sector.

However, behind the glossy sheen of the electronics products and the industrial development behind it is the dark side that often remains invisible due to an aggressive ‘disinformation’ campaign by the industry. More than a quarter of a trillion chips are manufactured annually requiring the use of staggering amounts of toxic chemicals, metal and gases. Toxic chemicals are essential raw materials for electronics, and thousands of chemicals are being used in its production process with devastating effects on the health of workers, communities and the environment as whole. The ‘toxic trouble’ from electronics industry emerged in many parts of the world ranging from the US to Scotland and to Taiwan and South Korea in Asia, and has alarmingly spread to many parts of the region. That the alarm bells are not being heard by national governments can be explained by the importance of industrial development in general, and the electronics industry in particular. Industrial development of electronics has attracted many developing countries since it has been perceived as better than textile and garment sector that absorbs more skilful workforce. In fact, the electronics industry in many Asia’s developing countries predominantly employs low-skill workforce with low added value to their economy, while the highest value of the industry such as semiconductor have been primarily designed and produced in developed countries including South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. This does not mean that workers in these countries are better off; they are even more prone to chemical hazards.

Furthermore, capital flows from electronics industries have been massive which involve active intervention of both global corporations and national government by imposing a range of new legal mechanisms and regulations serving their interests. As a consequence, anti-labour regime and policies become the order of the day.  The industry, therefore, has two major characteristics: first is highly polluting, and second is extremely repressive towards labour.

Samsung, a South Korean corporation, has become one of key players in the electronics global value chain. In 2011, sales of Samsung Electronics Corporation Ltd. surpassed 146 billion USD, a 7 per cent increase over 2010. The company employed 190,464 employees directly and through subcontractors, an estimated 800,000 globally in 2010. Samsung Electronics has become the leader in production of Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) chips, liquid-crystal display screens and mobile telephones. The production takes place in several Asian countries including home country South Korea, China, and Vietnam (the world biggest in Samsung mobile phone assembly). Samsung and other corporations would benefit in the future from a robust injection of capital that would allow mega-scale manufacturing and thus lower costs, which means exploiting labour. Even now, it has been argued that a large part of Samsung’s profits comes from short-changing labour. Samsung’s anti-union policy is almost a byword in the industry.

The statement of Samsung group chairman, Lee Kun-hee, shows how powerful Samsung is – where South Korea has been cynically called as a Republic of Samsung: “[…what] Samsung does not recognise is not the trade union itself, but the need to have a trade union. In other words, Samsung has a principle of management that does not need trade unions.”

Aside from its hostile attitude towards unions, Samsung’s style of management in almost all its production sites has been repressive: many workers have died and many continue to suffer from occupational diseases. In Korea, in the last several years, dozens of cases of occupational diseases have been discovered among workers employed by Samsung Electronics and its subsidiaries. In Indonesia, four workers have died since 2012. In India, workers in Noida Industrial Zone are continuously exposed to ionizing radiations, organic solvents, heavy metals (cadmium and lead), and chemicals that damage the reproductive organs (arsine & phosphate); every day about 100 workers complain of headaches, fever, body pains. Apart from these chemical exposures, overworked workers have no time or space for even going to the toilet or having a drink of water.

Consider to what Samsung top boss was saying that Samsung does not recognise the need to have a labour union as their principle of management does not need trade unions. This reflects the rise of even more powerful business over society. Every resistance and struggle against this would strengthen workers that directly or indirectly tied in the global value chains of electronic industry and beyond. 

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