The Korean Supreme Court appeal ruled on November 13 in favour of Ssangyong Motor Company management and against the reinstatement of laid-off workers. The workers were laid off in 2009 after a bitter stand-off with police and 77 day factory occupation.
The November 13 decision overturned an earlier decision in February 7, in which the Seoul High Court ruled the sackings violated Korean labour laws. The case has now been sent back to the Seoul High Court for the rehearing on remand.
A number of legal commentators and progressive civic groups have openly criticised the decision. They have accused the Supreme Court of giving into political pressure from powerful business groups and the ruling right-wing Saenuri party.
In a press conference on November 16, lawyers from the Seoul Bar Association, the civic group People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and the main opposition party New Politics Alliance for Democracy criticised the decision and raised suspicions about the methods used by the court in reaching its verdict.
The November 13 verdict is a clear sign of a new political offensive to overturn hard won job securities. Kim Tae-wook, an attorney for the union, told the press: “The Supreme Court’s decision that the layoffs were justifiable can only be read one way: they’re giving up any kind of control over layoffs.”
The political nature of the decision was highlighted by the fact that it was released just weeks before a public announcement by the the hard right Park Geun-Hye administration to overhaul Korean labour laws.
South Korean labour law currently provides permanent regular workers with a considerable degree of job security.
Articles 23 and 24 of the Korean Labour Standards Act set out a processes whereby employees can only be dismissed to “avoid financial difficulties” and there is an “urgent managerial need” to take such action.
The Labour Standards Act also sets out a consultation process between union and management that must be followed before redundancies can be considered.
These job security measures were the product of hard-won class struggle against the bosses that gave rise to the democratic movement in 1987 and lasted until the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
It was during this period of intense militant struggle that workers won rights of association and legal protection clauses. In the courts, the judiciary issued landmark decisions in the workers favour that confirmed and entrenched codified labour rights.
Many of these hard won gains were pushed back in 1997 in response to the Asian financial crisis. It was from the 1997 post-crisis neoliberal restructuring period that the ruling class was able to win back some the ground it lost earlier.
New laws were passed that increased the freedom for company to hire “irregular” workers on casual contacts for low pay and with little legal protections.
Just as the 1997 crisis sparked a push towards labour restructuring, the current push to water down had won job securities is also part of a larger neoliberal attack in response to decades of sluggish economic growth exacerbated by the global financial crisis.
In a November 24 press conference, the Park administration publicly announced plans to revise Article 24 of the Labour Standards Act to make it easier tosack workers. It also plans to remove legal requirements for management to consult with the union before considering redundancies.
Finance minister Choi Kyung-hwan expressed the concerns of business lobby groups by calling for more “flexible employment” and by mocking regular workers as being “overprotected”. The ruling class wants to further exploit the already tightly squeezed working class to make workers pay for the failings of capitalism.
The Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) has expressed its dissatisfaction with the ruling and has vowed to conduct an “indefinite fight” until all workers are reinstated.
The union has used strong words to condemn the ruling and accused the Supreme Court of playing politics. Kim Deuk-jung, head of the Ssangyong chapter of the KMWU, said: “Unless the management comes up with any plan for their reinstatement by the end of this month, we will take stern action …
“We believe that the judges took political considerations in order to protect management, instead of trying to protect weak and underprivileged workers. It's deplorable.”
On November 15, a large-scale demonstration was held outside the Ssangyong factory in Pyeongtaek, a city located 77 kilometre south of Seoul, more protest actions are planned.