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,

“Temporary Workers Struggle to Regain Jobs”, by Han Sang-hee , The Korean Times, January 6 2011,

“GM Daewoo workers high-altitude sit-in protest”, byCherisse Fredricks, International Metal Workers Federation, January 13, 2011,

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,

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,

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

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 and
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,
Incheon City,
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


[1]   Cited in Han Sang-hee, “Temporary workers struggle to regain jobs”, The Korea Times, January 6, 2011,

[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,

[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,

[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,

[8]   See “Free Han Sang Kyun”, Australia Asia Workers Links, September 2010,

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 01/18/2011 - 15:38


Urgent Appeal for Solidarity with Hong Ik University Custodial Workers

This is an urgent appeal for international support for South Korean cleaning staff at Hongik University Seoul who were dismissed on January 1 for forming a union. There is going to be a solidarity rally planned for January 22, in the meantime we need as much support as possible from the international community for the workers.

Please send messages of support to Messages received by January 20 (Thursday) will be announced at the solidarity rally on January 22, 2011.

We demand the immediate cancellation of the dismissal, increase of the workers’ wage to the level demanded by the workers, and full guarantee of their labor rights such as the right to form union.

We intend to publicize this outrage throughout the trade unions, universities, and civil societies worldwide to build up solidarity for the custodial workers.


Below is a petition put together by the South Korean activist group “All Together”. Please distribute and get as much support as needed.

Urgent Appeal for Solidarity with Hong Ik University Custodial Workers


In the beginning of the year, Hong Ik University, a private university in Seoul, terminated the employment of its 170 custodial and security workers who are mostly in their 50s and 60s for forming a labor union. Upon receiving the notices of dismissal the workers marched into the university president’s office and began the occupation demanding their jobs back and wage increase on January 3, 2011.

Custodial workers at Hong Ik University works 10 hours a day starting from 6 in the morning to clean and maintain the campus for a monthly wage of only 750,000 won (approximately $700). This is less than the legal minimum wage and the wages of unionized custodial workers at other universities.

What is worse is the daily meal stipend given to the workers is mere 300 won (less than 30 cents). Moreover, their employment gets extremely precarious whenever the cleaning company, the subcontractor, is changed.

The workers’ fight against such ridiculously unjust treatment is heroic.

Their struggle is supported not only by students and faculty members of the university but also by the general public. The struggle became a symbol of the struggles against low wage and poor working conditions. It is galvanizing support from radicalized young people and students who want to fight back against the increasing discrimination and inequality.

Currently, the school administration is showing no sign of retreat even after 2 weeks of occupation.

All Together is organizing an international petition drive to support the workers. We appeal to you to build solidarity with the Hong Ik University custodial workers fighting against injustice of job termination against unionization and of exploiting elderly people with a wage far below the legal minimum wage by circulating the appeal as widely as possible and signing the petition below.

Please send the signatures to It is critical that we urgently build international solidarity because the occupation cannot continue for long as the workers’ health are deteriorating quickly due to the cold weather and their age. 



For a full account of the Hongik struggle and some background to the struggle of “irregular” workers in South Korea please have a look at the following article:

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

Submitted by Roddy Quines (not verified) on Tue, 01/18/2011 - 21:16


Another update. I managed to get into contact with someone directly involved in the struggle at Hongik University.

Hongik university is still refusing to negotiate with the workers

It appears that now Hongik University is also planning to sue the workers for libel and deformation. This is a common procedure for employers to do when they get into an industrial dispute with workers. If the workers do not win their struggle then the court will most likely hit them workers with high fees to pay- this will end up leaving them jobless and destitute. They will most likely end up joining the ranks of unemployed and homeless people who sleep in the street and scrape a living collect garbage.

There was another rally outside the university on January 17. Images can be seen here:

Submitted by Jungil (not verified) on Fri, 02/11/2011 - 07:07


I'm a Korean activist here in Korea, and I wanted to thank you for writing this up, it's a concise summary of what is going on here right now, and what the world does not often think of when they think of my country. Labor is exploited right and left in Korea... contract workers, migrant workers, young workers, the working class... recently a young screenwriter literally starved to death in her home because she was not paid in full for the scripts she turned in, as per an insidious practice in the payment of writers in Korea which requires a movie to have made post-production in order for the writer to be paid up (…).

The current Korean government and the Korean people are very sensitive to voices and criticism from the outside (more so than of criticism from local activists such as I), and victims and Korean activists feel real solidarity and hope from any voices coming out from the world... we need your help more than ever! Thank you for this article, and thank you for your support!