SOUTH KOREA: Strike wave over repressive labour laws

Issue 

BY EVA CHENG

South Korea's workers have launched a wave of industrial action in response to repressive labour laws which are aimed at helping local and foreign capitalists undermine workers' wages and conditions. Workers' resistance has been met with state repression.

"This year is likely to be remembered as a time marred by the worst labour discontent since 1990, with labour disputes occurring almost every day", the Korean Herald complained on November 14. "A string of massive strikes in the transportation and manufacturing sectors swept the nation beginning in May."

During the past eight months alone, 190 worker activists have been arrested.

According to South Korea's ministry of labour, labour disputes for 2003 had totalled 305 by mid-November, 6.64% more than the same period last year, and edging close to the figures for 1990, when a record 322 industrial actions took place.

The most recent surge came as President Roh Moo-hyun's government drew up new laws to enable the seizure of trade unionists' homes and personal assets to "compensate" for the bosses' production losses during "illegal" strikes. "Strike damage" claims totalling 140 billion won (about A$200 million), in at least 46 workplaces, have been issued to unionists so far this year.

This crackdown followed victories won by workers' strikes in the transport, chemical and manufacturing sectors in the third quarter of this year.

At least four workers facing "strike damage" claims have committed suicide this year, two in recent weeks. Another worker also tried to kill himself and is in hospital in a critical condition. Aggressive government tactics to deport "undocumented" migrant workers have also driven at least three workers to kill themselves, including two in November.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which has 590,000 members in about 960 labour unions, took up the fight against South Korea's repressive labour laws, including "strike damage" claims and attacks on "undocumented" workers. It led a four-hour strike by 90,000 workers from about 100 workplaces on November 6. Their demands were not met.

On November 9, a series of protest rallies and marches in Seoul attracted 100,000 workers from nine industrial unions. At least 15,000 regular police and 30,000 auxiliaries were mobilised to control the peaceful early afternoon events. However, police aggression provoked violent responses in the early evening. Molotov cocktails were tossed and 112 protesters arrested. More than 100 workers were hospitalised following baton attacks by cops.

Disregarding police threats to deny protest permits to "organisations that have engaged in violence", the KCTU pressed ahead with a general strike on November 12 which involved 150,000 workers at 120 workplaces. At Hyundai, the country's largest carmaker, 38,000 workers joined the strike for half a day. (Hyundai workers also won a 8% pay rise following a six-week strike which ended in October.)

On November 14, a 100-day dispute at Hanjin Heavy Industries shipbuilding firm was settled with the workers' wage demands being met and damages suits and property seizures withdrawn. A key union leader at Hanjin, Kim Ju-ik, hanged himself on October 17 in protest at the management's aggression.

The KCTU has declared that it will hold more one-day strikes until early December unless the government repeals repressive labour laws.

Meanwhile, there have been large mobilisations in South Korea in protest against involvement in the US-led war on Iraq, the establishment of a nuclear waste dump in Buan, as well as actions by Korean farmers against the dumping of cheap agricultural imports by Western producers.

From Green Left Weekly, November 26, 2003.
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