On January 3, 170 cleaners and security guards at Hongik University in Seoul were sacked for forming a union and demanding better conditions.
The workers formed a union on December 1 and demanded decent working conditions. Since their sacking, the workers have held a sit-in protest at the university campus — eating and sleeping on the cold, hard floors of the Munheon Building.
Hongik University is South Korea’s most famous university for visual arts. Many graduates are showing their support for the workers through their art work.
The dismissed workers were hired on an “irregular” basis and were working 10 hours a day for poverty wages and no benefits. They received less than the minimum wage.
In South Korea, the minimum wage is 4320 won an hour (A$3.89); the workers at Hongik were being paid just 4120 won an hour ($3.71).
This is hardly a living wage, considering that many living expenses in South Korea are almost the same price as in Australia. Some everyday commodities, such as petrol and beef, are actually more expensive.
The workers are all in their 50s and 60s, so it will be very hard for them to get another job if they do not win their struggle. South Korea has a miserly welfare program and they could end up at the mercy of their families.
The university is refusing to negotiate with the workers. It is using their contractor status as an excuse to wash its hands of all responsibility for the workers’ unfair treatment.
Ryu Nam-mi of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) said: “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 realise that the school is actually in charge of hiring and employing workers.”
Many actions in support of the workers have taken place, including a rally and street march on January 11 by workers and community activists.
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 -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.
The Hongik workers struggle is part of a much larger struggle by South Korean irregular workers for improved working conditions. Irregular workers make up to 70% of the South Korean labour force and are among the most exploited.
On average, irregular workers receive lower wages and less benefits than those in regular, permanent work. Their employment status is also unstable, as they are hired on short term contracts and often have no legal protection from dismissal.
Starting on November 15, irregular workers at Hyundai motors in Ulsan, in the south-east, staged a 25-day strike. The workers’ action escalated into a full-scale struggle against the aggressive strike-breaking thugs and police.
The Hyundai strike was historic because it was one of the largest and hardest-fought battles by irregular workers. There was also 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 sit-in protest, the workers finally won back their jobs.
In Daejeon, in the country’s centre, irregular workers at the Lotte department store were also sacked 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. In protest, they have camped outside their workplace since their sacking.
In Bupyeong in the north-west, 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 rehires workers sacked for union involvement.
The struggle at Hongik continues and more international support is needed if the workers are going to win the justice they deserve. Please send solidarity statements to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Roddy Quines is a member of Socialist Alliance living in South Korea.]