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14-year-old girls in its factories: Samsung in the dock

Translated Sunday 3 January 2016, by Adrian Jordan

The union, INDECOSA-CGT, has joined forces with the French NGO, SHERPA, to fight Samsung in the courts. Based on evidence gathered by the NGO, China Labor Watch, the organisations have applied to the court in Bobigny on the grounds of misleading commercial practices, before taking action for human rights abuses.

“The exploitation of children under 16 years of age, abusive working hours, putting employees in danger, exposure to toxic substances (benzene), forced labour and violence towards employees...” the list of infractions is overwhelming. However, SHERPA and INDECOSA-CGT, due to a legal loophole, decided to fight Samsung for misleading commercial practices in order to establish a viable legal case.

It is evidence gathered in 2014 by Chinese NGO, China Labor Watch (CLW) (a different organisation from the American-influenced China Labor Bulletin), which has allowed this legal suit. This organisation is based in the worker’s megalopolis of “the Pearl River” (with cities like Shenzen, Dongguan, Canton...) with 40 million inhabitants and home of the subcontractors to the manufacturing giants of new technology. Foxconn and Pegatron are the best known of these companies, each of which employ thousands of under-age workers. The NGO, in partnership with unions, gathers statements from workers but also, as is the case for the Samsung Shinyang Electronics factory in Dongguan, plants undercover activists as factory workers to collect evidence.

And evidence is what they got. 15 different violations of employment law were documented. Young girls of 14 and 15 gave video evidence of their working conditions from the employee dormitories. Hired without contracts - as employing them is illegal - they do the same work as the adults but are paid a third less. Safety conditions were also criticised: workers use dangerous chemicals - benzene, for example - highly carcinogenic or known to cause neurological damage without masks or other protective equipment or any previous training. Also, more “normal” violations were encountered: unpaid overtime, no health insurance, overcrowded and dilapidated dormitories, violent and degrading punishment... A distinctive feature of this Samsung subcontractor, Shinyang Electronics, is the discriminatory practice of hiring almost entirely women in its factory, as the boss considers them to be more docile.

“While the world leader in smartphones boasts of its commitment to exemplary ethical practices in its factories, with the aim of preventing human rights abuses, SHERPA and INDECOSA-CGT wish to scrutinise this global double-talk which involves seducing consumers with an ethical message while completely shutting its eyes to activity that is completely at odds with such pious words”, decry the organisations.

Dongguan, from factory to brothel

Dongguan, like Shenzen, in the megalopolis of the Pearl River, houses giant factories with tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of workers. Among them, Matel, Foxconn, car plants, clothing factories, even Yue Yuen – the largest manufacturer of sports shoes in the world (Nike, Adidas, Converse, Reebok, Asics)... But the city is most notorious in China for organised prostitution on an equally industrialised scale. The sector produces between a quarter and a third of Dongguan’s revenue with no fewer than 800,000 prostitutes. Youngsters from all over China find themselves in the region looking for work in the giant factories, sometimes ending up in one of the city’s thousands of brothels and massage parlours.

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