Corporations, Unions, and Corporate Social Responsibility in South Korea

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Source: AMRC

Author/s: Wol-san Liem

Type: Research Paper

Keyword/s: corporate social responsibility, South Korea, green management, labor rights, unions

This chapter investigates corporate social responsibility (CSR) in South Korea, looking particularly at what it means for workers and unions. The second half is a case study of Samsung Group’s CSR strategy. Korean conglomerates’ CSR activities focus heavily on philanthropic activities, which provide corporations a means for presenting a moral image of themselves and distracting from their culpability in low wages and job insecurity. They also involve ‘green management’, which allows corporations to improve their reputation while taking advantage of new markets. Many corporations use CSR to mask violations of labour rights.

Despite this fact, South Korean unions see participation in CSR activities as a useful means for achieving their goals. In some cases, unions use CSR mechanisms to pressure corporations to meet their demands in connection to wider campaigns. In other cases, unions approach CSR from a perspective of cooperation with capital. Samsung Group uses CSR to paint a positive image of its ‘no union management’ with detrimental consequences for workers’ rights. Unions and social movement organizations have tried to challenge Samsung by exposing this use of CSR, as well as Samsung’s disregard for workers’ health. These efforts, however, are not yet systematically connected to worker organizing.

Overall, this chapter argues that when used by unions as part of comprehensive campaigns, CSR discourse and mechanisms can be helpful in winning sympathy for workers’ demands. It also argues that much of Korean unions’ participation in CSR feeds into corporations’ CSR strategies, supporting capital’s power. With respect to Samsung, it urges that efforts to expose Samsung’s CSR strategy be connected to a systematic plan for union organizing.

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