ON THE face of it Samsung, South Korea’s biggest chaebol, as the country’s family-controlled groups are known, has had a good couple of months. In April it was name-checked in a report by the country’s antitrust body for good progress on corporate reform. It also posted record profits for the fourth quarter in a row, thanks mainly to its booming memory-chip business as well as its Galaxy range of smartphones. But on May 15th prosecutors spoiled the mood. They raided Samsung’s offices outside Seoul and arrested Choi Pyeong-seok, head of human resources at the after-sales subsidiary of Samsung Electronics, the group’s main earner, on allegations that he had been involved in sabotaging labour-union activities and might destroy evidence unless he was jailed (he has not responded to the allegations).
Mr Choi’s arrest is part of an attempt by prosecutors to prove systematic breaches of labour law at the company’s highest levels. (Samsung says it is unable to comment, as the investigation is still going on.) Their probe began in February, when officials discovered evidence related to union-busting during a separate inquiry—into accusations that Samsung had wrongly paid legal bills for a car-parts maker allegedly owned by Lee Myung-bak, a former president.
Even though South Korea has a tradition of energetic industrial action, unions have been largely absent from Samsung. Lee Byung-chul, the empire’s founder, used to say the firm would recognise them “over my dead body”. Politicians and law-enforcement authorities paid little attention to claims that the firm was preventing the emergence of unions, perhaps because Samsung accounts for a fifth of South Korea’s GDP.
Now they are looking more closely. The evidence that led to Mr Choi’s arrest suggests that one firm in the Samsung empire had monitored the personal interests, friends and drinking habits of potentially disruptive workers and used cash bribes to stave off unionisation. That echoes documents which people have unearthed in the past. In 2013 Sim Sang-jeung, a left-wing lawmaker, made public a document which she claimed contained Samsung’s guidelines for preventing the formation of unions. It recommended gathering incriminating information on workers who were considered likely to form a union, and to shut down such attempts early by using disciplinary action.
Ms Sim’s allegations did not lead anywhere at the time. Although prosecutors investigated her claims, which if proven would have put Samsung in breach of South Korean labour law, they were reluctant to probe too deeply, says Park Sangin, an economics professor at Seoul National University who studies the conglomerates. The case was closed in 2015.
Mr Park reckons the current investigation will be more thorough. The corruption scandal that felled the former president, Park Geun-hye, who was jailed for 24 years last month, also embroiled Lee Jae-yong, the heir to the Samsung empire, who is serving a suspended sentence for paying bribes to Ms Park’s aide in return for business favours. That scandal galvanised law-enforcement agencies, whose anti-corruption drive has the backing of President Moon Jae-in’s reformist government. Expect prosecutors to keep pushing.