Union-busting chairman of Samsung Electronics gets 18 months for labor law violations

Devin Coldewey
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 4: Detail of the Samsung logo outside the Samsung Experience Store on Oxford Street in London, taken on June 4, 2019. (Photo by Olly Curtis/Future via Getty Images)

The latest Samsung Electronics executive to go to prison for one of a variety of crimes is Lee Sang-hoon, chairman of the company's board. A recent investigation unearthed conclusive evidence that Lee conspired with others at Samsung to crush unions and unionizing efforts there, in violation of South Korea's labor laws.

The investigation in question began back in 2013 with the leak of company documents describing methods for combating employee unionization efforts. It was the beginning of a years-long set of interconnected cases that would eventually lead to indictments and jail time for dozens of executives there.

The case against Lee Sang-hoon was eventually dropped, but reopened last year when additional evidence was obtained in a raid on the company for a separate investigation. The incriminating documents led to further indictments that year and eventually Lee's sentencing today (which may still be appealed). The Wall Street Journal first reported the news.

Samsung Electronics President Young Sohn was onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin just last week, ahead of Lee's sentencing but after that of several other executives. Managing editor Matt Burns asked Sohn what happened. He first said those sentenced weren't part of Samsung Electronics but another related group, then that he doesn't get involved in the complex legal issues because that's "their personal affair."

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He also said that they are "accused, they're not proven guilty," which is true in a way as long as the trial is ongoing (should they choose to appeal), but certainly they have been convicted and sentenced.

But Sohn admitted that "it's really important for any corporation, any size, whether it's small or large, that you need to have a clear value system and clear ethics, and continue to train your management to make sure that there is a consistency in terms of how they do things."

Unfortunately that value system over the last few years seems to have been quite explicitly and consistently against the formation of unions, to the point where it ran afoul of Korean law.

Sohn joined the company eight months ago, well after these troubles started, so it's fair to see him as coming in to right the ship after a tumultuous few years both legally and business-wise. The convictions may signal that the investigations and scandals are coming to an end, but they are convictions nonetheless, and Samsung's reputation has suffered immensely from the scale of the crimes its most powerful employees have committed.