South Korea: Irregular and migrant workers continue their daily struggles

February 8 rally at Yonsei University by irregular cleaning staff.

By Roddy Quines

March 20, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- This is to update my article published in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal on January 14, 2011. There are a number of victories to report. These victories show the power of diligent action and solidarity in overcoming injustice. They also serve as evidence that direct action is an effective way to get results. There are some new struggles to report, and hopefully these struggles can also generate positive results. The struggles in this article are just a few of the many across the country being fought by “irregular” workers.

Daejeon Lotte department store workers strike

Religious Leaders in Daejeon hold a press conference in support of the Daejeon Lotte workers.

The Daejeon Lotte deparment store workers’ struggle reported in my January 14 article has been resolved. The department store agreed to enter negotiations in early February and an agreement was reached. Under the agreement, six of the 11 workers will be reinstated and the other five workers will get a job in another company. The jobs of the five workers are to be guaranteed by the minister of labour.

On October 31, 2010, these workers had their employment contracts terminated after forming a trade union. Most of the workers had been employed at the store for more than 10 years. They formed a union in response to their low pay, hard work and bad working conditions. Not only were the working conditions bad, but the workers were also forced to clean the houses of VIP customers.

Management initially refused to negotiate. In response, the workers camped outside the store in protest. They slept outside their workplace and endured the bitter cold of the South Korean winter, which sees temperatures as low as minus 14°C. A number of protest actions took place outside the store.

On December 29, 2010, there was a demonstration and press conference by local religious leaders demanding that the Daejeon workers receive the justice and respect they deserve.[1] The press conferece was attended by six Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist clerics; including Father John Kim-Jong-ki and Father Joseph Kang Seung-Seo from the Catholic Committee for Justice and Peace of the Daejeon diocese. The clerics stated that the workers have a constitutional right to form a union and told Lotte to consider their moral responsibility to the wellbeing of the workers.

The substandard working conditions of the workers were also highlighted in the press conference along with the fact that some workers were being made to clean the houses of rich customers. On December 30 and January 15, 2011, demonstrations were held outside the store to demand the rehiring of the workers. Members of the community stood beside the workers in protest.

Hongik University cleaning and security staff:  A victory for better pay and the right to form a union

Workers at Hongik University clean up after reaching an agreement with the university.

The dismissed workers at Hongik University reached an agreement with management on February 20 after a bitter 49-day struggle. The workers won recognition of their union, better conditions and a pay increase. Cleaners are now to be paid 4450 won ($3.93 Australian)[2]; the previous pay rate for cleaners was 4120 won ($3.64) per hour, which was lower than the legal minimum wage of 4320 won ($3.82). The workers are also to receive meal allowances, holiday bonuses and extra payment for overtime work.[3]

The victory of the Hongik cleaning and security staff was the result of intense struggle and international support. Since my January 14 report a number of actions in support of the workers took place. On January 22, a candlelight vigil took place on campus. It was attended by the dismissed workers, as well as supportive students and activists. The protesters sat in front of the university steps with candles, chanting and singing traditional Korean labour songs. There were live musical performances by talented young Koreans, ranging in style from Korean pop music to traditional folk songs. The singers were upbeat and enthusiastic.

The temperature was freezing at minus 5°C, but everyone braved the cold and remained upbeat. However, the freezing temperature made the event painful. After the first hour, my entire body was burning and in physical pain because of the cold. The workers carried banners stating: “Our bodies are cold but our hearts are warm.”

The January 22 rally was endorsed by many prominent activists from around the world, including Professor Martin Hart-Landsberg from Lewis and Clark College USA and prominent Marxist theorist Alex Callinicos from the British Socialist Workers Party. The Socialist Alliance in Australia issued a statement in support of the workers. The statement was translated into Korean by the Korean socialist group All Together and handed out on flyers to those at the rally. The statement was read aloud over the microphone.

South Korean universities are very concerned with their international reputation, especially in the eyes of Western English-speaking countries, therefore international statements condemning the university’s actions were a powerful influence on the final result of the conflict. The subsequent victory of the workers shows the power of international solidarity in influencing the situation in South Korea.

On February 15 there was a large daytime rally attended by workers and several hundred activists. The rally started in the streets surrounding the university, the workers and activists then marched towards the university. Many students attended and were carrying placards demanding the university enter into negotiations with the workers.

The Hongik workers victory also shows the power of online networking sites as platforms for political activism. New media outlets such as the Facebook and Twitter allow for social injustices to be exposed to a much wider audience than in the past. The Hongik campaign became popular among young net users and became South Korea's most re-tweeted story in January 2011.[4] The massive online campaign prompted netizens to put their money together to buy a newspaper advertisement calling for the dean of the university to enter talks with the workers.

Strikes spread to major private universities in Seoul

February 8 rally at Yonsei University.

At 6 am, March 8, 2011, irregular cleaning staff from three major Seoul private universities – Ewha Woman's University, Yonsei University and Korea University – went on strike after negotiations for improved pay and better working conditions were refused by the universities and their labour hire contractors.

The workers are demanding a pay increase. At the moment they are only being paid 4320 won per hour, the legal minimum. The workers want this to be raised to 5180 won per hour. The workers are also demanding better working conditions. They are asking for the dispute to be taken to arbitration at the National Labor Relations Commission, the state-run organisation for industrial disputes, for resolution, however management is refusing.[5]

As in all disputes involving irregular workers, the universities are refusing to deal with the workers and are using their contractor status as an excuse to wash their hands of any responsibility:            

“Many schools deny their roles in the strike, claiming that the business is strictly between the outsourcing companies and their employees. However, they must admit that they are the practical users of the cleaners’ labors and that they should take certain amount of responsibility in the incident”, commented KCTU staff worker Ryu Nam-mi.[6] Ryu added that “the universities have the key to solving this problem... The fastest way to make progress in talks is for the universities to take responsibility for managing their workers and take proper steps for this.”[7]

Shim Bok-ki, head of the Ewha university labour union expressed the discontent felt by the workers: “A worker makes an average of 800,000 won a month. That barely makes one’s ends meet. Half of my colleagues are bread earners of their families, which makes things even worse.”

The miserly minimum wage of 4320 [per hour] is hardly a living allowance, especially since South Korea has been hit with rapid inflation and hiking food prices.[8] In January 2011 food prices in South Korea rose by 11.6 per cent, the highest jump in food prices among OECD member countries.[9]

Shim Bok-ki also highlighted the fact that this struggle is about more than just money, it is about the workers gaining respect and recognition from society for their hard work and effort: “It is more a sign of respect for what we do – whether we could make a living with what we do in the campus despite the invisible discrimination and ignorance we face every day.”

Cleaners in Korea, like most Asian countries, are subjected to a higher degree of disrespect and snobbery than in the West. Manual labour is still looked down upon in South Korea with even skilled tradespeople receiving little respect or recognition for their work. This is because of an age-old snobbery against those who get their “hands dirty” at work.

On February 8, a rally was held at Yonsei University in solidarity with the workers’ demands. More than 800 people attended and the crowd was comprised of the workers, students and their supporters. There have also been direct efforts made by the students to support the workers. Students at Ewha have launched a campaign asking the school to raise their fees in order to fund the wage increases, and at Yonsei university students are protesting on campus alongside cleaning staff and demanding that the universities pay wage increases out of their own pocket because the contractors refuse to pay.

Daewoo irregular workers win back jobs

In my January article I reported on the sit-in strike by GM Daewoo workers that had been going on for more than a month in response to layoffs of unionised irregular workers.

On February 2, GM Daewoo agreed to rehire all 15 of the dismissed unionised irregular workers at the Bupyeong plant. The two workers who climbed the arch in protest came down and have since recovered from the hypothermia and frostbite that they sustained as a result of sleeping outside their workplace in protest. This is another significant victory for the unionisation of irregular workers. Again it was militant direct action that got the results.
Europe Solidaire Sans Frontiéres (ESSF) outlines the details of the reinstatement:

  • 9 union members laid off after closure of the in-house subcontractor they were employed by: will be rehired by a subcontractor within the one following the 1-year anniversary of the end of the union chapter’s protest, (by the end of January 2013).
  • 5 union members laid off for disciplinary reasons: will be rehired by a subcontractor within 6 months following the 2-year anniversary of the end of the protest (by the end of July 2013).
  • 1 union member employed by a GM Daewoo parts supplier (secondary subcontractor): will be rehired by a subcontractor within the same period as the 5 union members above.10]

This is a significant victory, however there is still the struggle for the regularisation of these workers. As reported in my January 14 article, GM Daewoo is still to abide by the South Korean Supreme Court’s July 22, 2010, decision that in-house contractors who have been working with the company for more than two years are entitled to be employed directly by the company with all the rights and benefits of regular workers.[11]

Migrant Trade Union president at risk of deportation

Protest held outside the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong in support of Michel Catuira.

Another struggle to report this month is the visa cancellation and possible deportation of Migrant Trade Union president Michel Catuira. On February 10, the Korean Immigration Service issued a number of measures against Catuira, including the cancellation of his permit to change workplaces, the cancellation of his visa and the issuing of a departure order to leave the country by March 7 or face forcible deportation to his home country of the Philippines. The Korean Immigration Service also cancelled Catuira’s employer’s permit to hire migrant workers.

After taking the matter to court, on March 2 the Seoul 12th Administrative Court ruled in favour of suspending Catuira’s visa cancellation and the order to depart.[12] This suspension order is only a temporary measure, however, and will only last until the end of the appeals case.

Upon receiving the court’s suspension order on March 2, Catuira immediately applied for an extension of his visa in order to cover the time needed to find a new employer. Short-term visa extensions for job seekers are routine and are usually processed on the same day as the application. However Catuira was forced to wait two weeks after application for a response.

Finally on March 17, Catuira was informed by the Korean Immigration Service that his application for an extension of his visa has been denied and he must leave South Korea by March 31 or face forcible deportation.[13] It appears that the Korean Immigration Service is willing to use any means possible, including ignoring a court decision, to target the Migrant Trade Union.

The Migrant Trade Union was formed in April 2005 by migrant workers in South Korea.[14] Many of the MTU’s members are undocumented immigrants. The majority of its members consist of South East Asian workers who are working in menial jobs for poverty wages because they are unable to find employment in their own countries. These workers are subject to discrimination and they form a third class within the workforce. They experience low wages, poor working conditions. Under the current visa system they have limited freedom to change their employer.[15] This class of workers make up a super-exploited subsection of the proletariat and perform what are called “3D jobs”, i.e. dirty, dangerous and difficult work.

Currently the MTU is not recognised as a legal union and since its inception the South Korean government has waged a war on the union. Six of its officers have been arrested and five have been deported. The most recent attempt to deport Catuira can only be seen as part of the larger war on organised labour and immigrants.

The visa cancellation order and non-extension has sparked international outrage from NGOs and human rights groups. Amnesty International issued statements on February 18 and March 2 demanding the South Korean authorities immediately restore the visa status of Michel Catuira.[16] Amnesty International issued the following demands on its website.

  • Restore Michel Catuira’s visa status and refrain from forcibly deporting him.
  • Immediately stop all practices which result in obstacles or deterrents to actively participating in trade unions.
  • Immediately remove obstacles to participating in the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU), in particular by recognising its status as a legal union in South Korea in line with domestic and international law and standards.[17]

Amnesty International has set up an online protest letter that can be filled out and sent directly to the Korean Immigration Service at:

As much international pressure as possible is needed to reverse the non-permission for extension order. Activists and community groups should pass on details of the Amnesty campaign and get involved.

Delivery drivers: The human cost of fast deliveries

Protest to end the 30-minute rule.

A very visible group of exploited workers are the delivery drivers who deliver food from takeaway stores and lower-end restaurants. Anyone who has visited South Korea would have seen them as they race down the narrow side streets in a mad rush to deliver orders on time. Most of them drive old run-down motorbikes and scooters, and often they are not even given a helmet to wear while performing their duties.

These workers are paid the bare minimum wage of 4300 won per hour, plus 400-won bonuses for fast deliveries.[18] Many of the drivers are under increased pressure to deliver in impossible times because low wages make them desperate to get bonuses for fast deliveries. Furthermore most stores have a “30 minutes or free” deal. If the food is not delivered within 30 minutes drivers have the cost of the meal taken out of their already meagre earnings. The 30-minute deal has contributed to many road accidents because of the pressures put on drivers to get food delivered quickly. According to an accident insurance payment report obtained by the Hankyoreh newspaper, accidents among delivery drivers have increased from 2.94 accidents per restaurant in 2007 to 4.10 in 2010.[19] Seok Jin-hyuk, a former delivery person, highlights some of the fears and difficulties associated with the job: “While being hurried by time, I had to consider both driving and the food that I carried. I couldn’t balance my mind and body, always feeling nervous.”[20]

The director of the Youth Community Union, a union for youths and unemployed people, highlights the need for change in the industry: “We can no longer ignore dangers these young laborers are getting into, who cannot help but to work under such a system to either earn a living or desperately try to save some money for high university tuition fees.”[21]

These unrealistic demands that are placed on drivers are obviously a workplace safety risk, however most of these workers are young university age students employed on an irregular basis and are yet to organise themselves into a union.

On December 12, 2010, a promising 23-year-old student from Seoul University died after he crashed his motorcycle into a taxi. On February 13, a 19-year-old pizza delivery driver died after being hit by a bus. These deaths were reported nationwide and triggered safety concerns over the welfare of the drivers. Activists from the Youth Community Union launched a protest campaign to force the government to ban all time guarantees. On December 23, a protest was staged in front of the Ministry of Employment and Labor to protest the 30-minute rule and demand more reasonable treatment of workers. Protesters dressed in black to symbolise the deadly consequences of 30-minute deliveries. On February 18, 2011, the Youth Community Union and the Institution for Occupational and Environmental Health held a press conference in front of Domino's Pizza’s South Korean headquarters in Seoul to demand the company “stop the murderous 30-minute delivery pledge”, which was the chant of the rally.[22] There is also been an online protest campaign that has received much attention from net users. Tens of thousands of signatures have so far been collected through Facebook and Twitter.

So far there have been some positive results from the campaign. On February 1, Pizza Hut decided to abolish its 30-minute delivery guarantee. Hopefully others will follow suite. The campaign has also raised awareness among customers of the occupational risks associated with unreasonably quick deliveries, as Lee Hyun-jung from the Institute for Occupational and Environmental Health notes: “Normally, customers who order a pizza for delivery habitually ask for fast delivery, but more people are asking for safe delivery”.[23]

The Korean labour movement’s new face: The rise of irregular and contract worker discontent

Above: Riot police attack irregular workers at the Hyundai plant in Ulsan. Below: In 2007 E-land workers occupied a store in Seoul in protest of mass dismissals of irregular workers. In response riot police cracked down on occupiers.

South Korea is not the only country to suffer from labour repression, rising exploitation, rising food prices and casualisation of the workplace. The struggles above are part of a larger global struggle against austerity that has taken place everywhere from Europe, the Middle East, to Wisconsin USA. The international nature of these struggles shows that workers and progressives must also forge international solidarity in our resistance to austerity.

The recent unfolding of events show the truly international nature of our struggle, all workers and oppressed people must stand together because we all face a common class enemy. Like the austerity measures in Europe and the dismantling of the public sector unions in Wisconsin, irregular workers in South Korea have been hit with decades of labour “flexibility” laws that are chiefly aimed at disciplining trade unions and increasing the rate of exploitation in order to make the working class pay for global capitalism’s stagnation.

Despite two decades of rapid economic growth under the Park Chung-hee dictatorship’s state-run capitalist system, the South Korean economy first started to show sings of slowdown with the 1979-80 debt crisis. In the next three decades South Korea experienced a number of downturns and crises as the state-capitalist system stagnated and broke down and was replaced by the equally unstable neoliberal alternative.

With the breakdown of the system in the 1980s came radical militant unionism, this discontent exploded into the Great Civil Movement and the Great Workers' Struggle in 1987. Union membership rates doubled from 1981 to 1989, and as a result real wages also rose in this period and the balance of power between capital and labour was shifted more towards labour.[24] As a result of this, South Korea’s unions gained a reputation of militancy with its often violent confrontations with police, uncompromising demands and unique rituals such as head shaving and fist waving. Many Western leftists looked towards South Korea’s labour movement with a degree of romantic sentiment.

Serious attempts by the state and ruling class to combat militant unionism were introduced in March 1997 under the administration of President Kim Young-sam and his neoliberal labour laws.[25] These laws introduced a number of harsh measures such as the right to use scab labour during strikes, the legalisation of layoffs and the prohibition of wildcat strikes. This was intensified in 1998 when the newly elected Kim Dae Jung government initiated a number of neoliberal structural adjustment policies, which included mass privatisation, layoffs and labour “flexibility”.

Like the austerity measures in Europe and the anti-labour laws in the USA, the workplace restructuring in South Korea was clearly a way for the ruling class to push the unfavourable burden of the crisis on the working class – ordinary people had to give up good stable jobs to pay for the mess the capitalist rulers have gotten themselves into. 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.

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 service, the number of irregular workers could be as high as 80%.[26] However, along with the restructuring and exploitation there have also been signs of resistance. Since 1997 many of the most intense labour struggles have been conducted by irregular workers. This shows a new and promising direction for the South Korean labour movement, as many regular worker unions have become reformist and bureaucratic.

Despite the difficulties of getting regular and irregular workers to engage in united struggles, there have been a number of landmark incidents. In the early 2000s casual workers at Korea Telecom staged a two-year struggle for regular employment, and in 2004-2005 plant construction irregular workers staged militant street fights in major industrial cities. In 2004 irregular and contract workers formed their own national network of militant casual workers within the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU): the National Solidarity of Casual Workers Union. This symbolised the new militancy of casual workers.[27] Two of the most militant and confrontational strikes of the last four years have been the E-land strike in 2007 and the Hyundai irregular workers factory occupation in November/December 2010. Both of these struggles showed an unprecedented level of struggle and determination by irregular workers to win.


[1]    See John Choi, “Korean clerics demand workers get jobs back”, UCA News,

[2]    According to Universal Currency Converter accessed on March 4, 2011,

[3]   Han Sang-hee, “Hongik University workers reach tentative agreement”, Korea Times, February 20, 2011,

[4]    Lee Yoo Eun, “South Korea's most retweeted story: Newspaper ad against unfair layoff”, Global Voices: The World is Listening, January 26, 2011,

[5]    Kim Hee-jin, “Janitors on strike at three universities”, JoongAng Daily, March 9, 2011,

[6]    Cited in Bae Ji-sook, “Cleaners strike over pay”, Korea Herald, March 9, 2011,

[7]    Kim Hee-jin, “Janitors on strike at three universities”, JoongAng Daily, March 9, 2011,

[8]    For background on Korea's rising inflation see “Rising inflation pushes the Bank of Korea to increase the rates by 25 basis points in March”,,

[9]Korea's food inflation in Jan. grows fastest in OECD, Dong-A Ilbo, March 10, 2011,

[10]  Europe Solidaire Sans Frontiéres, “GM South Korea: Daewoo irregular workers win reinstatement!”, February 4, 2011,

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

[12]  “News Briefing: Court suspends deportation of migrant union chairperson”, Hankyoreh, March 3, 2011.

[13]  “MTU Statement concerning the Seoul Immigration Service’s Denial of MTU President Michel Catuira’s Visa Extension”, March 18, 201,

[14]  See the official MTU website at

[15]  For more background on migrant workers see Kevin Grey, “From human rights to worker's rights: the emergence of a migrant worker's union in Korea”, Global Society, 2, 2007, pp. 297-315; also see Won Young-su, “Korea, migrant workers' struggle”, in Immanuel Ness, ed., International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 1993-1994.

[16]  Amnesty International, “South Korea: Trade unionist at risk of forced deportation: Michel Catuira”, February 18, 2011, ; Amnesty International, “South Korean government must not deport migrants’ trade union leader”, March 2, 2011,

[17]  Cited in Amnesty International, “South Korea: Trade unionist at risk of forced deportation: Michel Catuira”, February 18, 2011,

[18]  Lim Ji-sun, “The price for cheap delivery”, December 14, 2010,

[19]  Lee Ji-yoon, “Death raises safety concerns for pizza delivery drivers”, Korea Herald, December 23, 2010, ;Lim Ji-sun, “The price for cheap delivery”, Hankyoreh, December 14, 2010, ; Yim Seung-hye, “For pizza guys, every delivery could be their last”, JoongAng Daily, February 17, 2011:

[20]  Cited in Lee Ji-yoon, “Death raises safety concerns for pizza delivery drivers”, Korea Herald, December 23, 2010,

[21]  Cited in Yim Seung-hye, “For pizza guys, every delivery could be their last”, JoongAng Daily, February 17, 2011,

[22]  'S. Korea activists say pizza pledges can be deadly', Yahoo News, February 18 2011,

[23]  Cited in Yim Seung-hye, 'For pizza guys, every delivery could be their last', JoongAng Daily, February 17 2011,

[24]  Seongjin Jeong, “General Strike Against Neoliberalism in South Korea”, Journal of Institute of Social Sciences, 16, 1, 1998, p. 89.

[25]  For more information on the “New Management Strategy” see: Seongjin Jeong, “General Strike Against Neoliberalism in South Korea”, Journal of Institute of Social Sciences, 16, 1, 1998, pp. 87-111.

[26]  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,

[27]  Won Young-Su, “Korea, labor movement, 20th century”, in Immanuel Ness, ed., International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, Blackwell Publishing, p. 1993.