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
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”.
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
workers sit in to protest their unfair dismissal.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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%.
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
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%,
however this figure hides the fact that more than half the workers are
irregulars who are receiving poverty wages.
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:
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.
you can do to help
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com
and firstname.lastname@example.org. Please
send letters of protest demanding GM Daewoo negotiate with the workers and
address their demands to:
GM Daewoo president Mike Arcamone,
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.
The National Security Law was created during the military dictatorship period
to persecute leftists and pro-democratic forces as “pro North Korean”
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.
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 email@example.com.
Anita Gardner, “Korean Supreme
Court takes decision in favour of precarious workers”,International
Metal Workers Federation, July 29, 2010.
 Cited in Chris
Kim, “ South Korea: `Just the first round' by `irregular workers' at Hyundai
Motors”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 16,
 Eunkyung Seo,
“South Korea Jobless Rate Unexpectedly Rises to 3.6%”, Businessweek,
January 13, 2011.
Urgent Appeal for Solidarity with Hong Ik University Custodial
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
Please send messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
We intend to publicize this
outrage throughout the trade unions, universities, and civil
societies worldwide to build up solidarity for the custodial
Below is a petition put together by the South Korean activist
group “All Together”. Please distribute and get as much support as
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 email@example.com. 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
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:
Struggles by 'irregular' workers multiply, solidarity needed, by