South Korean workers fight jobs threat

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South Korean workers fight jobs threat

By Eva Cheng

Seizing on the current economic crisis, South Korean bosses succeeded in pushing through the National Assembly on January 12 a new labour law that further erodes working conditions and makes it even easier for them to fire workers.

Before the new law, employers weren't supposed to sack workers for "managerial or operational" reasons — that is, insufficient profits — in an unrestrained manner. A Supreme Court decision required them to make certain efforts before resorting to lay-offs, though this was easily circumvented.

But even that requirement has been ignored since the current crisis exploded in November. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions reported that during November alone, more than 100,000 Korean workers lost their jobs.

Since March 1997, bosses already had the legal right to sack workers at will. But after the massive general strike in December 1996-January 1997 against this and other anti-labour moves, the government declared that the right to sack would be enforced only in two years. The new law passed this month will allow bosses to sack with a legal blessing.

Also as part of the new law, in the name of "flexibility", bosses can force workers to work odd schedules, up to a total of 48 hours a week. If the workers "agree", the ceiling can be lifted to 56 hours. Overtime payment is history.

Contrary to the often-repeated myth that Korean workers are guaranteed a "job for life", the KCTU revealed that a resemblance to that only be found could in the top 30 chaebols (big conglomerates), which account for only 4.4% of total employment.

The chaebols' ability to offer greater job security is now in doubt. Moreover, 6.3 million workers, or nearly half of South Korea's work force, are currently employed on a casual or temporary basis.

Financial sector workers were the first targets. Under a call by president-elect Kim Dae-jung, the National Assembly will meet this month in an emergency session to allow unrestrained sackings in the financial sector.

The KCTU adopted in its January 7-8 central committee meeting a strategy of pressuring the government and the bosses to give organised labour an equal say in measures to cope with the current economic crisis. The KCTU envisages a tripartite set-up of the government, bosses and labour.

To strengthen its bargaining position, the KCTU called on its ranks to start organising towards a possible general strike. At least 55 KCTU member unions, including 23 from the Hyundai group, are scheduled to vote on the strike proposal in mid-January.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly also authorised the setting up of multiple umbrella unions from 2002. That will legalise the KCTU, a demand the confederation has been pressing since its establishment in 1995.

Despite the KCTU's "illegal" status, it has recruited 500,000 to its ranks and led the general strike a year ago. On the KCTU's request, International Monetary Fund managing director Michel Camdessus met with the confederation's representatives on January 12 in Seoul and promised to consult the KCTU on a regular basis in the future.

In South Korea's presidential election last month, KCTU chairperson Kwon Young-gil stood as the candidate for People's Victory 21, an alliance of progressive forces, in the third such attempt ever in South Korea.

Kwon received 306,037 votes — or 1.2%. According to People's Victory 21, he received as much as 17%, 9.7% and 4% in some working-class electorates. However, Kwon's votes were still short of even the KCTU's own membership, a fact which the KCTU attributed to the higher priority which many KCTU supporters gave to maximising the chances of Kim Dae-jung.

Financial difficulties did not permit People's Victory 21 even to distribute campaign material to every household, while the major parties bought expensive TV time.

While TV stations gave three prime time debates to the three "major" party candidates, the four "minor" candidates were allowed only one forum at 10am eight days before the election.

People's Victory 21 reported the establishment of 220 branches around the country during the election and adopted a "Wake Up, Korea" campaign which aims at turning South Korea's 12 million wage earners into an independent political force.