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South Korea: Struggles by 'irregular' workers multiply, solidarity needed

January 11, 2011, irregular cleaning staff at Hongik University in Seoul protest their unfair dismissal.

[For more background to the South Korean irregular workers’ struggle, see Chris Kim’s excellent article on the Hyundai irregular workers’ strike in Ulsan: “South Korea: ‘Just the first round’ by ‘irregular workers’ at Hyundai Motors”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 16, 2010.]

By Roddy Quines

January 14, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- A rally by irregular cleaning staff at Hongik University in Seoul took place on January 11, 2011. The workers were protesting against their dismissal on January 3 for forming a union on December 1. They were also demanding better working conditions. Since their dismissal the workers have been holding a sit-in protest at the university campus and they have been eating and sleeping on the cold, hard floors of the Munheon Building. Hongik University is South Korea’s most famous university for visual arts and hence many of the students are showing their support for the workers through their art work.

The dismissed irregular workers were working 10 hours a day for poverty wages and no benefits. They were receiving a wage lower than the minimum wage. In South Korea, the minimum wage is 4320 won per hour (A$3.89); the workers at Hongik were being paid just 4120 won per hour ($3.71). As an Australian living in South Korea I must say that this is hardly a living wage considering that many living expenses here are almost the same price as in Australia and some everyday commodities, such as petrol and beef, are actually more expensive than in Australia.

The university is refusing negotiations with the workers and is using their contractor status as an excuse to wash their hands of all responsibility for the workers’ unfair treatment. Ryu Nam-mi of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) states that “the problem is that the universities usually avoid negotiations, claiming they are not the direct employers. The only way to solve this is to have them realize that the school is actually in charge of hiring and employing workers”.[1] Hongik University prides itself on being a world-standard university for the visual arts, but it is shameful that it can treat their hard-working employees so callously.

Sacked workers sit in to protest their unfair dismissal.

January 11 rally in support of the sacked workers.

This incident is just one of the many struggles of exploited irregular workers across the country who are fighting back for better pay and basic rights at work. On November 15, 2010, irregular workers at Hyundai motors in Ulsan staged a 25-day strike that escalated into a full-scale struggle against the aggression by company strike-breaking thugs and police. The Hyundai strike was historic because it was one of the largest and hardest-fought battles by irregular workers and there was unprecedented solidarity between irregular and regular workers. The struggle at Ulsan gave hope to the oppressed and exploited workers of South Korea to stand up and fight.

In mid-December irregular workers at Dongguk University were sacked after the university switched contracting companies and refused to rehire them. After days of demonstrations and a diligent sit-in protest the workers finally won back their jobs.[2]

In my city of Daejeon irregular workers at the Lotte department store were also sacked shortly after forming a union. Most of the workers had been employed in the store for many years, but as soon as they organised to get better working conditions they were dismissed on November 25. The workers are determined to struggle against their unfair treatment and in protest they have been camping outside their workplace in protest since their dismissal (their dedication is to be admired because the South Korean winter sees temperatures as low as 14 degrees below zero). The Daejeon workers will not back down until they get their two main demands of being reinstated to their jobs and recognition of their union.

On December 30, there was a candlelight demonstration outside the store. There is another demonstration planned for January 15 at 2 pm outside the department store. The Daejeon regional headquarters of the KCTU is supporting the struggle of the Lotte irregular workers and some workers from other industries are participating in the protest action. There are some socialist workers organised in the metal industry who are actively supporting the struggle of the Lotte workers. Unfortunately, the regular workers at Lotte do not support the action because they are not unionised.

In Bupyeong GM Daewoo workers have been engaged in a sit-in strike for more than a month on an arch erected above the entrance to their factory.[3] The workers’ demands are similar to those of other disputes, that GM Daewoo recognise their union and rehire the workers who were sacked for union involvement. The workers are also calling on GM Daewoo to abide by the South Korean Supreme Court’s decision on July 22, 2010, that in-house irregular contractors who have been working for a company for more than two years have a right to be employed directly by the company with all the benefits of regular workers.[4]

The workers are facing a difficult struggle and many are suffering from hypothermia and frostbite as they sit day and night on the roof of the factory. The police are preventing anyone from the community from getting to the workers to provide assistance. Management is completely uncooperative and is refusing to negotiate with the Korean Metal Workers Union.

GM Daewoo workers rally for their rights. (Photo from the International Metal Workers Federation.)

All of the abovementioned cases share a central theme: irregular workers are denied even the most basic right to organise in a union and engage in collective bargaining. They also demonstrate the diligence and determination of the human spirit to stand up against injustice and fight for survival. Easily exploitable irregular workers are carrying the South Korean economy, and it is estimated that up to 70% of workers are now employed as irregulars. According to Ha Jong-kang from Han-ur Labor Issues investigative research, the number of irregular workers could be as high as 80%.[5]

This process began under Kim Dae Jung in 1997 when so-called “labour flexibility” was introduced as part of the restructuring of the economy by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to cope with the Asian financial crisis. It is no coincidence that the last decade has seen a rise in poverty levels in South Korea and a shrinking of the middle class.

The South Korean government under the conservative president Lee Myung Bak prides itself on how official unemployment rates are so low and the economy is allegedly “picking up” from its slowdown in 2008. However this is a complete illusion because the so-called economic “recovery” has been largely off the backs of workers and what Marx would call the increasing rate of exploitation. Unemployment rates in South Korea look good on paper at only 3.6%,[6] however this figure hides the fact that more than half the workers are irregulars who are receiving poverty wages.

More information

Very few news sites have reported the abovementioned struggles in English and as far as I know I am the only English writer to report on the Daejeon Lotte workers struggles. However, for further details look at the following articles:

“Harsh Retribution”, by Jeon Jong-hwi, Hankyoreh, January 4, 2011, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_entertainment/457145.html.

“Temporary Workers Struggle to Regain Jobs”, by Han Sang-hee , The Korean Times, January 6 2011, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/01/117_79288.html.

“GM Daewoo workers high-altitude sit-in protest”, by Cherisse Fredricks, International Metal Workers Federation, January 13, 2011, http://www.imfmetal.org/index.cfm?c=25100&l=2.

For a much more comprehensive introduction to the struggles of irregular workers in South Korea see “South Korea: `Just the first round' by `irregular workers' at Hyundai Motors, by Chris Kim, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 16, 2010, http://links.org.au/node/2056.

For an introduction to the problems facing the South Korean economy see the following article by a long-time East Asian expert: “The Promise and Perils of Korean Unification”, by Martin Hart-Landsberg, Monthly Review, April 2009, http://www.monthlyreview.org/090427-hart-landsberg.php.

What you can do to help

I live in Daejeon and I can pass on messages of solidarity to the Daejeon Lotte workers directly. The workers have been on a very difficult struggle after losing their jobs and sitting out in the freezing cold for weeks, so any message of support from the international community would lift their spirits. Please send solidarity messages to links@dsp.org.au.

The Korean Metal Workers union is also calling for international support for the GM Daewoo workers in Bupyeong and messages of solidarity can be sent to dwbi@jinbo.net and psspawm@gmail.com.
Please send letters of protest demanding GM Daewoo negotiate with the workers and address their demands to:

GM Daewoo president Mike Arcamone,
199-1 Cheongcheon-dong,
Bupyeong-gu,
Incheon City,
403-714,
Republic
of Korea.

Another struggle that is worthy of support involves the prosecution of seven South Korean labour activists on December 3, 2010, who were found guilty of “anti-state acts” under the National Security Law.[7] The National Security Law was created during the military dictatorship period to persecute leftists and pro-democratic forces as “pro North Korean” agitators.

Those found guilty include Oh sei-chull, professor emeritus of Yeonsei University. All seven activists were members of the organisation Socialist Workers Alliance of Korea, a group that is critical of both North Korea and South Korea. The court prosecuted them for being socialists under the National Security Law, however the real reason for their prosecution was because of their active involvement in militant labour disputes since 2007. Under the Lee Myung Bak administration there has been increased suppression of workers’ struggles by the state. This is not an isolated incident and many labour leaders are in jail for standing up for workers’ rights. The most famous of these was Han Sang Kyun, who was sentenced to four years in prison on February 13, 2010, for his involvement in the Ssangyong motors strike in 2009.[8]

The activists are yet to be sentenced, but the prosecution is demanding that they be given terms of 5-7 years’ imprisonment. On January 27 sentencing will take place and there is still time to put pressure on the court to reduce or obviate the sentences. In the meantime, readers are urged to barrage judge Kim Hyung Doo with email messages of protest. Judge Kim can be reached at swlk@jinbo.net.

Notes

[1]   Cited in Han Sang-hee, “Temporary workers struggle to regain jobs”, The Korea Times, January 6, 2011, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/01/117_79288.html.

[2]   See Han Sang-hee, “Temporary workers struggle to regain jobs”, The Korea Times, January 6, 2011.

[3]   For more information see: Cherisse Fredricks, “GM Daewoo workers high-altitude sit-in protest”, International Metal Workers Federation, January 13, 2011,  http://www.imfmetal.org/index.cfm?c=25100&l=2.

[4] Anita Gardner, “Korean Supreme Court takes decision in favour of precarious workers”, International Metal Workers Federation, July 29, 2010.

[5]   Cited in Chris Kim, “ South Korea: `Just the first round' by `irregular workers' at Hyundai Motors”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 16, 2010, http://links.org.au/node/2056.

[6]   Eunkyung Seo, “South Korea Jobless Rate Unexpectedly Rises to 3.6%”, Businessweek, January 13, 2011.

[7] Loren Goldner, “South Korean state persecutes socialist workers”, Workers Liberty, January 9, 2011, http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/01/09/south-korean-state-persecuates-socialist-workers.

[8]   See “Free Han Sang Kyun”, Australia Asia Workers Links, September 2010, http://www.aawl.org.au/files/pdf/free_hanV5_10_09_23.pdf.

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