South Korean Labor Strikes Back
by Hyun Lee
South Korean workers are preparing to strike back at their government's labor reforms, trade agreements, and general indifference to the fate of working people.
Standing in the way of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s series of controversial labor market reform initiatives is the Korean Confederation Trade Unions (KCTU). The union confederation has vowed to “stop freight trucks in their tracks” and “immobilize the country” if the government continues to push through its comprehensive reform package.
The proposed reform would increase labor flexibility on a scale that is unprecedented since the country’s adoption of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-imposed structural adjustment policies in the late 1990s. Cloaked as a solution to growing youth unemployment, Park and South Korea’s ruling conservative party propose to replace the country’s seniority-based wage system with a flexible, performance-based system. The reform would start in the public sector and introduce a wage peak system, under which older workers swap an extended retirement age for fixed salaries regardless of their seniority. The reform would also relax conditions for the termination of workers, increase the use of temporary contract workers, reduce job security in all labor sectors, and allow employers to change their employment regulations without worker consent.
The reform initiative comes as South Korea pursues a series of free trade agreements (FTAs) that will further undermine the country’s food sovereignty and limit its sovereign sphere by impeding its policy-making powers. The Korea-US FTA, in its third year of implementation, has given foreign corporations the power to control South Korea’s domestic policies through the controversial investor-state dispute system, which enables foreign corporations to challenge the country’s laws on the grounds that they may interfere with the corporation’s ability to make profits. The Park administration is also in the final stages of completing a trade deal with China, which has farmers worried about the flood of cheaper products from China into South Korea’s agricultural market. And South Korea has just announced its intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), the secretly negotiated mega trade deal, the full text of which was only recently been released.
The KCTU is forging a broad united front with farmers and the urban poor not only to oppose the labor market reform but to mount a challenge to Park’s broader pro-corporate, pro-free trade agenda. It has called for a mass convergence in Seoul on November 14 to build momentum for a potential general strike in the coming months. But it’s a risky fight, since Park has shown that she is willing to take extraordinary measures to silence her opposition.
At the center of it all is a man named Han Sang-gyun, the newly elected KCTU president with seemingly unshakeable resolve, hardened from years of fighting labor struggles in the streets. He served three years in jail for leading the 2009 occupation of a Ssangyong Motors plant, in which 900 workers barricaded themselves for 77 days to protest layoffs and which ended in a violent showdown with the police wielding water cannons and tear gas. After being released from jail, he climbed on top of an electric transmission tower to stage a protest 164 feet up in the air. His aerial protest, which lasted 171 days in the harshest months of winter, forced candidates in the 2012 presidential election to declare their positions on the Ssangyong dispute, which still continues today. In 2014, in KCTU’s first direct election with the participation of all 800,000 rank-and-file members, Han ran on a pledge, if elected, to launch a general strike and make the KCTU “Park Geun-hye’s greatest fear.”
Han recently spoke about KCTU’s efforts to stop the proposed labor market reform, as well as the impact of IMF-imposed structural adjustment policies and the Korea-US FTA on South Korea's labor market.
What Is the KCTU?
Hyun Lee: We first came to know of you in January 2013 when you and other former Ssangyong Motors workers were living on top of an electrical transmission tower 164 feet above ground to protest the unjust layoff of 3,000 workers by Ssangyong Motors back in 2009. Tell us about your personal background -- about the Ssangyong fight and what led to your decision to become the president of the KCTU.
Han Sang-gyun: “Layoffs are akin to murder” -- that was the leading slogan of the Ssangyong Motor workers during our 77-day factory occupation to oppose layoffs in the simmering summer of 2009. I was the union representative then, and I still shudder when I think back at the time I spent with comrades who were willing to risk their lives in that fight. The crackdown by the government, which had mobilized all of its might and special weapons, was a gruesome battle between the government, which had defined the workers as its enemy, and the workers, who were left to writhe in agony as they struggled to stay alive. Twenty-eight workers have died so far as a result of the trauma caused by the government violence. I had the unfortunate fate of receiving this tragic news while in jail, and that was incredibly hard to endure.
After spending three years in jail, I wanted to fulfill our vow to live our lives in a world without irregular and precarious work, so I climbed a 124,000-volt electric transmission tower with my comrades. The reality in South Korea, where dismissed workers have to plead to be heard and bring attention to their pitiful and unjust plight, is not changing and in fact becoming more barbaric.
I decided to run for the position of KCTU president in order to change this reality, where workers live in constant fear of dismissal and can be dismissed at any time and where even after they are dismissed, workers blame their own incompetence. I wanted to confront capital and those in power who want to institute a system of modern-day slavery, and fight for the liberation of 10 million irregular workers. I wanted to devote myself to turning this world of low-wage exploitation, where people work themselves to death for less than $2,000 a month, into a world where workers can live with respect and human dignity through meaningful labor.
When you ran for office as KCTU president in 2014, you pledged to launch a general strike if elected. Why was this important? And why do you think the KCTU rank and file chose you as the president?
The KCTU represents the interest of 20 million workers. To fight for workers, who have their backs against the wall and are attacked from both sides by the government and capital, there is no other path but a general strike.
The KCTU election in 2014 was the first election with the direct participation of all 800,000 members. I think the expectation that I won’t simply be complacent in a situation where struggle may be difficult and that I will find a way out is the reason they elected me as KCTU president. What we are about to embark on is a general strike not only to fulfill that expectation but more importantly to stop the Park Geun-hye government’s labor market reform, which will turn the entire country into a pool of irregular/precarious workers who can be dismissed at any time without cause.
You have been confined inside the KCTU office, and the government has issued a warrant for your arrest. Why? And what are your days like?
After I became KCTU president, we called for a mass demonstration on April 24 to oppose the anti-worker laws that the government is pursuing. This was followed by Labor Day on May 1. Workers came out to the streets en masse for legal demonstrations. Lots of people were on the streets, so inevitably, this led to some minor violations of traffic laws and the Law on Assembly and Demonstration. So the prosecutor’s office ordered me to report to them for an investigation, and I told them that I would comply. But because we couldn’t agree on a date that was convenient for them, they issued an arrest warrant. And since June 23, I have not set foot outside the KCTU building. Outside the building, hundreds of police stand guard day and night on surveillance duty in order to arrest me.
Although I am confined in the office, I am still just as busy. Many KCTU meetings take place at the office, several times a day. People from all regions bring me home-cooked meals. I’m not able to move around a lot, so I’m getting fat, and that worries me a bit. (Laughs) I haven’t been home for almost 5 months, but my family comes to visit me often. They haven’t abandoned me yet! (Laughs)
The Fate of Precarious Workers
President Park Geun-hye and the ruling conservative New Frontier Party (NFP) are intent on pushing forward a comprehensive labor market reform package. Talk about these reforms and the impact they will have on South Korea’s workforce as well as the labor movement.
Article 33 of our constitution guarantees workers the right to form labor unions and exercise independent association, collective bargaining, and collective action to confront capital and protect our interests. But the government is trying to undermine labor unions through policy directives that trample on the spirit of our constitution.
The most problematic aspects of the proposed labor market reform would enable employers to terminate workers whenever they want without cause and make all workers irregular/precarious workers. There are two proposed laws related to irregular/precarious workers. One would allow the use of dispatch/contract workers in all labor sectors, and the other would extend the contract term of irregular workers from two to four years. If this passes, an employer can hire young workers for four years, fire them temporarily, then rehire them for another four years. This means that they would have no reason to hire permanent, regular workers, and it would simply be a matter of time before the entire labor force in South Korea becomes irregular or precarious.
Iit is already very easy for employers to lay off workers in our country. A company can lay off workers not only in cases where it is actually financially struggling, but even if it projects that it may run into a deficit in a few years. Currently, whit- collar workers in banks and large corporations are forced into early retirement even before they reach the age of 50. At least in their case, they receive some compensation. The proposed law on general dismissal would enable an employer to terminate its workers based on “low performance” and send them away empty-handed. This would allow a company to get rid of unwanted workers without spending a dime.
Also, according to the current law, a company can only change its employment regulations with the explicit consent of the majority of its workers. The labor market reform that the government is pursuing would allow employers to change their employer regulations as they please without worker consent. If this passes, a worker can lose his/her job or have his/her wages docked simply for falling out of favor with his/her employer, and there would be no reason for the employer to listen to the demands of a labor union. This would create a slavery-like work environment where workers constantly have to curry favor with their boss. This is designed to eliminate all means of resistance by organized labor, which is precisely the aim of the Park Geun-hye government.
South Korea already has the highest percentage of irregular/precarious workers and the greatest labor flexibility of all OECD countries. The government’s policy is aimed at making permanent a structure in which workers can work the maximum work hours but still incur rising debts, and this spells disaster. The Park Geun-hye government, which refuses to hold the chaebols responsible and instead passes on distress to workers, is fanning the outrage of workers and the urban poor, and their outrage is about to reach a boiling point.
The KCTU was born on the eve of the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Its general strike to oppose labor law reforms in 1996 and International Monetary Fund (IMF)-imposed structural reforms in 1997 catapulted the KCTU to international recognition. Please talk about that history and how the so-called “IMF crisis” of 1997 altered South Korea’s economy and conditions for workers.
In 1996, the then-Kim Young-sam government railroaded the legislative process to pass a series of labor laws that would make it easier for employers to lay off workers and hire temporary/contract workers. A month-long general strike of millions of workers stopped the government from enforcing the law and boosted the confidence of workers that we can make a better world through our own power. It was that spirit that eventually led to the entry of progressives in South Korea’s political arena.
But the same law was reintroduced as part of a structural adjustment program imposed by the IMF after the Asian financial crisis in 1997. In the past, if you worked hard, it was possible to raise a family with hope for the future. But the IMF-imposed structural adjustment policies introduced a system for easy layoffs. The Act on the Protection of Dispatched Workers allowed companies to hire temporary workers on short-term contracts.
Immediately after the passage of these laws, the Hyundai Motor Company announced layoffs, even though it was not in any financial hardship. So we understood that these laws are about forcing workers to the edge of a cliff. These laws were not only aimed at laying off workers but at destroying labor unions. If there were workers leading a struggle to demand their rights at the workplace, the employer could simply evoke this law to dismiss them at any time, undermine their legitimate labor union activity, and uproot the labor union from the workplace.
Back then, we had no idea just how serious the problem of irregular/precarious employment could become. Since then, layoffs and the use of contract workers have turned 10 million workers into irregular/precarious workers. Today, you won’t find a single household without at least one irregular worker. The biggest disaster in South Korean society today is income inequality and the lack of decent and secure jobs.
That is why this year, the KCTU created a movement center to address head on all the problems related to irregular/precarious employment.
Compare the KCTU of 20 years ago and the KCTU of today. What is the biggest challenge in carrying out a general strike on a similar scale?
Twenty years ago, the term “worker” or “laborer” was not popular at all in South Korean society. Workers were derogatorily referred to as gong-soon-yi (factory girl) or gong-dol-yi (factory boy). There were no human rights for workers, who faced rampant exploitation and oppression. Through the popular democratic uprising of 1987 and the mass worker struggle of 1996, we built the KCTU and declared workers as owners of society. The movement that faced off against dictatorship and ushered in democracy in South Korea was made possible by the flag raised by workers. And for the first time, there was hope that people can live decent and dignified lives as workers.
Since then, the KCTU has failed to address head on the problems of the ever-growing irregular/precarious workers. Until recently, no organization properly represented the 10 million such workers, and this ultimately weakened KCTU’s ability to fight.
For some time, capital has pursued its strategy of labor exploitation by reining in those in power and taking control of the police, the prosecutor’s office, the national assembly, and the media, which all stand on the side of capital to oppress workers. And they have created fear among workers that struggle can lead to losing everything. Astronomical fines and seizure of property for so-called damages, warrants for imprisonment, termination from employment, destruction of democratic unions -- these are the forms of punishment for those who dare to fight.
Despite this, we have no choice but to fight. KCTU is calling for a general strike despite all this because without a fight, what’s left of organized labor, the only means to defend the rights of workers, can ultimately become obsolete. The lives of 20 million workers are on the line.
Free Trade Agreements
It has been three years since the implementation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), touted as the largest trade deal for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and which became a model for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mega trade deal among 12 Pacific Rim countries. What has been the impact of the Korea-U.S. FTA on South Korea’s workers and farmers? And what would be the impact of the TPP if South Korea decides to join?
Workers and farmers fought hard to stop the Korea-US FTA but ultimately failed. Farming areas have become devastated, and workers have become prime targets of exploitation by transnational capital. The government has basically decided to give up on food sovereignty. Their logic is that we have to give up on agriculture in order to sell semiconductors, ships, and automobiles and that that is the only way for our economy to thrive. So they implemented the FTA by force.
If you go to the rural areas today, you will find no farms that are economically competitive. The youth have abandoned the rural areas and have all gone to the city. But in the city, there are not enough jobs, so they have basically become day laborers who don’t even earn the minimum wage and barely eke out a living.
Today in South Korea, there are 9.4 million workers, who, despite working long hours, earn less than $2,000 month. The Korea-US FTA has made low-wage exploitation a permanent feature of our society, and transnational capital now rules our economy.
The government is now in the final stage of completing the Korea-China FTA and has announced its intention to join the TPP, which will cover a massive economic region.
Joining the TPP will inevitably increase competition with Japan, and this is projected to cause damages that will exceed those of the Korea-US FTA. The reason why South Korea has not pursued an FTA with Japan thus far is that Japan is more competitive in many economic sectors. Experts warn that if Japan has increased access to South Korea’s market through the TPP, our economy will quickly become jeopardized and it could lead to mass unemployment. Japan’s agricultural products are similar to what South Korea produces, and if they flood our domestic market, it would be the death knell for our agricultural sector and food sovereignty.
The has called for a mass demonstration on November 14. Please talk about the significance of the November 14 demonstration as well as what’s at stake in this broader fight.
The KCTU’s top demands are to stop the labor market reform, create tougher conditions for termination of workers, and transfer irregular/precarious workers to permanent, regular employment. But we all know that we can’t win if we fight our struggles alone. We can’t resolve the problems faced by farmers, the urban poor, youth, and workers if we don’t fight together.
So in each region, farmers, workers, and the urban poor are working together to organize for November 14. This is unprecedented, and the KCTU is taking the lead in forging a united front at the regional level. So it’s not about coming together just on November 14 but working together leading up to November 14 and beyond.
There are 11 demands for the November 14 demonstration, and they include: stop the labor market reform; abolish irregular/precarious employment; stop rice imports; stop crackdowns on street vendors; and hold the chaebols responsible. But these are simply a compilation of the top demands of the various sectors that are coming together. We know we can’t win all of them. More importantly, our unified goal is a fundamental change in a national system that favors the chaebols and overlooks the interests of the common people. The November 14 demonstration is an important step in this fight. That’s why all are resolved to converge in Seoul in a historically-unprecedented scale on November 14.
I’ve spent many hours worrying about preparations for November 14 while stuck in this windowless building, and these hours have been filled with apprehension and anxiety. But something amazing is unfolding as we speak. At least 50,000 irregular/precarious workers plan to converge in Seoul. Workers in various industrial sectors have resolved to oppose the labor market reform and also aim to mobilize 50,000 for November 14. Elderly farmers with canes will charter buses to join the mass demonstration. The urban poor, and youth and students, too, are determined to occupy Seoul. I’m only frustrated that many irregular/precarious workers who wish to join the demonstration but can’t afford to charter a bus.
In the lead up to November 14, each region has been holding its own rally, and we have sent people on a national bus tour to educate and organize across the country. In Seoul, we are also doing an ad campaign on the city buses. It’s very expensive to buy an ad on a city bus, so we’re unable to do it on a large scale. But through the ads, we point out what’s wrong with the labor market reform and appeal to the general public about our fight to oppose it. And the general public has been applauding our efforts.
We have staked everything on this fight. If the Park Geun-hye government continues to railroad the labor market reform despite our pleas, then we will also be ready for next year’s general election in April and the presidential election the year after that. We are more determined than ever to cast a unified ballot in the upcoming elections.
Lastly, what are the plans for beyond November 14?
I believe when workers from all regions gather in Seoul on November 14, we will regain our confidence, which will be critical as we prepare to strike. If the national assembly pursues the labor market reform and the government issues a directive to enforce the administrative and legislative reforms, we are prepared to launch a general strike. And this time, it will not be a one-day strike. We’re talking about stopping production, freight trucks stopping in their tracks, railroad and subway workers on illegal strikes, and paralyzing the country so that the government will feel the outrage of the workers. That’s what we’re preparing for.
The KCTU also opposes the Park Geun-hye government’s attempt to introduce state-authored history textbooks. A good president should write new history through his/her actions, but ours simply wants to revise the past. South Koreans have always been critical of Japan’s distortion of history, but now the Japanese media is pointing its finger back at us for doing the same thing. This is an embarrassment.
Last month, a KCTU delegation traveled to Pyongyang for a friendly football competition between workers of North and South Korea. Peaceful unification is a long-cherished aspiration of our people, and the workers will demonstrate that the only way out of our current crisis is through reconciliation and economic cooperation between the North and South.
Our spirits are buoyed by the fact that people as faraway as the United States are interested in and cheering on our efforts. I hope the November 14 demonstration will help us regain our confidence to lead a successful general strike so that when we speak again, I can relay news of our victory. Please stand with us in solidarity and be with us in spirit.
Hyun Lee is a member of the US-Korea Solidarity Committee for Peace and Democracy and a fellow at the Korea Policy Institute.
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"South Korean Labor Strikes Back"