Even as local labor prosecutors have initiated an investigation, South Korean companies are coming under fire in Brazil, South America's leading economy, for alleged abuse of their workers.
"I can't even comb my hair by myself now," said one former employee of South Korean electronics giant, Samsung, blaming the company's excessive work demands for the paralysis in her left arm.
AdvertisementThe young woman, who did not want to be identified, is among dozens of workers who have raised allegations of widespread abuse at a Samsung plant, located in Campinas, 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Sao Paulo.
Similar complaints have been made at other South Korean companies that recently set up shop in Brazil, drawn by the booming economy which grew 7.5 percent in 2010 and a large workforce among the nation's 200 million people.
"I'm too young to be suffering like this," said the 30-year-old who had to undergo neck surgery that affected the movement of her arm and neck.
The machine she operated "required me to keep my head down for a long time... Now I have no movement in the arm and neck," the young woman, who was fired after she developed health problems, told AFP. "Today I have no life. I can't get a new job."
Several of the former Samsung employees who reported abuses expressed bitterness and weariness as they described their ordeal.
"Barking out orders, swearing, aggression. This is something that our culture does not tolerate," said Catarina von Zuben, a local labor prosecutor who is investigating the work environment in South Korean firms operating in the Sao Paulo industrial area.
The investigation concluded that physical aggression, such as pushing, and psychological, such as insults and pressure to boost production, caused "many depressive symptoms, health problems, many of a mental nature or affecting the musculoskeletal system," the prosecutor added.
In August, Samsung reached a court settlement under which it pledged to end the abuse and to pay $287,000 (230,000 euros) in moral damages to more than 90 workers who had brought a complaint against the company.
With the settlement, Samsung considers the case to be "officially closed," it said in a statement sent to AFP, adding it was committed to "preserving the welfare of its employees." It employs some 3,500 people at the Campinas factory, most of whom belong to a union.
But the ex-employees, who testified against Samsung in their lawsuit filed in May 2010, spoke of exhausting workdays with repetitive movements in the production line made worse by assault and humiliating treatment by supervisors.
"If the worker could not meet the (production) target, they would say that there were a lot of people outside who wanted to join the company... Therefore we worked like dogs," said one female employee who requested anonymity and suffered from repetitive strain injury in her hands.
She repeated the same movement, standing 10 hours a day to assemble cell phones. She would not even take the five-minute coffee break she was entitled to so as not to waste time.
"I almost had a depression. I was a model worker," added the employee who assembled between 90 and 100 cell phones per hour when the target was 80.
She was fired the day after she spoke with AFP, with no reasons given, according to the investigator.
A study by the worker health center found that many of the employees suffering from musculoskeletal problems were young people who show "degenerative lesions linked to aging."
In addition to the pressure from supervisors to boost production, workers were under constant threat of being fired.
"People are afraid to report (abuse) for fear of losing their jobs," said another worker who said he was sure he would soon be dismissed for having spoken out.
Labor prosecutors attribute the phenomenon mainly to cultural differences, pointing to similar complaints against other South Korean firms who have set up in Brazil.
They say they plan to advise Asian firms seeking to move to the region about Brazilian labor laws.
"The Asian (business) culture in Asia is based on a rigid hierarchy and compliance with targets," said Tang Yi Shin, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo and an expert on Asian institutions.
He said Brazilians "work four, five months (in these companies) and can't take the pressure."