Sunday, May 29, 2005

Two Vacations

I'm off on vacation today for two weeks, so if there are not too many new posts on this site (off course that will depend on Matt) then check out some of the blogs listed below, especially Kotaji's blog, never a dull moment there.

On the topics of travel, Brazilian president Lula is in Korea this week. Here's a story on his meeting with the KCTU. Lula has his personal roots in the labor movement but has recieved criticism for his wavering opposition to some tenants of neo-liberalism as of late.

I'm curious if they agreed on some possible actions or agreements.

Lula meets Korean labor leaders
Visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva met yesterday with leaders of Korea's most hard-line labor group to discuss global labor issues such as neo-globalization and the Doha Development Agenda.

The meeting between the labor-leader turned president and representatives of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was arranged by the Brazilian labor group CUT, with which the KCTU has long-time relations, KCTU officials said.

Korean labor activists including the KCTU President Lee Soo-ho were expected to stress that the U.S.-led globalization trend is a threat to the livelihood and rights of workers all around the world, including those in Korea. The Brazilian leader arrived in Seoul on Monday for a three-day visit to participate in the Global Forum on Reinventing Government which runs through Friday.

Summit talks with President Roh Moo-hyun are also to be held today. Internationally known for his past career as labor activist, Lula was hailed by many workers in the world when he was elected in 2002 as president in a landslide victory. He is a founder of the Workers' Party of Brazil and a former president of the Metal Workers' Union.

Korea Herald (2005.05.25)

Monday, May 23, 2005

Petition for Anwar's release

As you've probably already read here, Anwar Hossain, president of the Migrant Worker's Union was arrested the other week and is currently being held. Kabir, a famous migrant activist who was also arrested around that time, has already been deported. Here is an update from the Korea Times on the case and a petition from the IUF for his release. I'll update more on this issue as things develop.

Blogs Blogs Blogs

A few good blogs on Korean politics, social movements, and migrant workers have recently come to my attention. These ones are noteworthy for their more intimate relation to these topics.

Nobarie's blog is an English blog by a Korean speaker who is involved with the migrant worker's movement. It's a new blog, but it looks like it will grow to contain a mix of translated articles on migrant workers and other topics, as well as Nobarie's own thoughts and posts on these matters. I'm looking forward to reading more.

Christian's blog has been one of my favorites for a long time. Mainly because this guy seems to go to a protest or rally in Korea every single day and he takes lots pictures. Christian is a non-native english speaker, in fact he's a German emigre living in South Korea, but his posts are always interesting, and though some may find his politics contentious, it is certainly genuine. He's also documented the migrant worker struggle extremely well.

Kotaji's blog contains his thoughts on the Korean peninsula, North East Asia, history and other things. It's a quite a good blog, written from London, that also tracks developments in Korean social movements in the news as well as other major events, sort of like we do, but with his own particular choice of events -- definitely a blog to keep an eye on, especially for some of the bigger political events on the penninsula.

I'm putting all this in out links section to make them easier to access. If anyone knows any other good blogs in English about Korean social movements, then please post a commet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Immigration Prison Diaries

Ohmynews has published letters written by an American of Jamaican descent who was arrested for teaching English illegally in Korea. Due to an internet controversy followed by a sensationalist tv program demonizing English teachers earlier this year, migrant workers are no longer the only foreigners being regularly targeted by immigration police in Korea. This article fills in the background, while this one touches on another aspect of the controversy.

The letters, written from the detention centre in Yeosu, can be found here and here. They provide an excellent look at, and criticism of, the system from the inside, and detail the challenges faced not only by the foreign workers from all over the world he is confined with, but also by the prison guards, who work in 24 hour shifts.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Crackdown Starts With Arrests of High Profile Migrants

I wrote a quick story on the latest arrests quickly last night, should be up somewhere soon. I've included a longer background to the migrant's rights movement that I had written a while ago.

South Korea Rounds Up Migrant Activists
May 14th 2005
By Jamie Doucette

In the last 48 hours, two of South Korea’s most high profile, undocumented migrant worker activists have been arrested. Anwar Hossain, head of the new Migrant’s Trade Union that was inaugurated last month, and Kabir Uddin, founder of the Equality Trade Union – Migrant’s Branch were both arrested by officers from the immigration control division.

Kabir, who was interviewed by ZNET in January 2004 (see interview), had been quietly working and hiding out in the south of the country to avoid immigration officials since his involvement in a high profile year-long sit-in that ended in November and which saw him personally targeted and singled out by immigration officials the police on numerous occasions. Kabir won a high profile human rights case for unlawful arrest back in 2002 and became, along with Mohammed Bidduth, the first migrant worker to beat a deportation order in South Korean history.

Meanwhile, Anwar, on the day he was arrested, had just been featured in a prominent national paper criticizing the government’s policy towards undocumented migrant workers.

“Migrant workers have been working in undesirable jobs commonly known as the 3 Ds ―difficult, dirty and dangerous ―for 17 years, yet our contribution to this country has gone unnoticed,” Anwar stated in an interview in Saturday’s Joong Ang Daily.

“It's quite hard to understand why we have to become illegal immigrants while the government here brings in new workers while forcing previous workers out of the country. We're only here because we want to make a living, and it is time that our voices are heard.”

Anwar announced in the interview that the Migrant Trade Union is planning to propose a bill to the National Assembly in August that aims to abolish the three year time limits on E-9 Employment Permits for migrant workers, and extend further health benefits and labour rights to them.

In Saturday’s article, Anwar was also quoted as saying that if authorities wanted to, they could deport him, and that, within hours, is exactly what they did.

Activists close to Anwar are also reporting that his hands, arms, and head were injured during the arrest that involved over 20 immigration officials and police.

The arrests of both these activists in the last 48 hours follows on the tails of the slated deportations of a number of other migrant activists–two Bangladeshi members of the ETU’s sit-in team by the names of Abu Bakar and Jewel were picked up earlier this month, as were two important Nepali activists named Jibon and Gagendra.

Members of the MTU and other migrant activists are meeting Sunday to discuss what action to take in lieu of the recent days’ events.

Currently activists can post solidarity messages on their website at

Background: Labour Migrants to Korea and the Migrant’s Rights Movement.

Mass labour migration began to pick up shortly after the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and from that period on it has increased steadily, declining only for a brief moment during the aftermath of the 1997 Asian monetary crisis, or IMF crisis as it is perhaps more appropriately called in Korea. Currently, South Korea is home to about 450,000 migrant workers, about 185,000 of which are undocumented. This large proportion of undocumented migrants in South Korea, and the lack of political space accorded to them, is largely the result of reluctance on behalf of employers and government lawmakers to formally recognize the rights of migrant workers and the issues they face.

South Korea’s policies towards labour migrants were hashed out in the years following the Seoul Olympics and in 1992 the Industrial Trainee System (ITS) was formally established. Under the ITS, workers were recruited overseas by a network of recruiting agencies assisted by the Korea Federation of Small and Mid-sized Businesses (KFSB for short) and entered the country to work as foreign trainees, not workers. Yet, in reality, these workers were performing jobs termed 3-D work -- work that is dirty, dangerous, and difficult – for a fraction of what local workers were paid. Thus there was a large incentive for these workers to become undocumented by seeking work elsewhere, in workplaces where they could earn considerably more.

Korea’s small and mid-sized businesses welcomed these workers with open arms. After years of successful export led growth, the Korean working class was seeking better jobs and higher wages, and these sectors had taken a hit. For those companies who couldn’t export their operations overseas or improve the productivity of their manufacturing process through technological investment, migrants were seen as a cheap, renewable source of labour.

As Timothy Lim mentions, despite constant defections from the trainee system by migrant workers, reaching as high as 60% of trainees per year, the system was not reformed but expanded. And Lim argues that in this respect the South Korean government and KFSB encouraged – or even planned – the growth of undocumented immigration in South Korea. Lim writes that:

This should not be surprising, for the ability to criminalize immigrant labour serves a very useful purpose. Illegal immigrants ipso facto have little or no claim to protection under Korean laws, to compensation for accidents, or to other basic rights. As illegals, moreover, it is easier for employers, the government and society to ignore, or better still, to justify their subordination and exploitation. It is also easier, at least in principle, to deport such workers when the need arises (17).[1]

Therefore, as the Trainee system continued to expand, so did the number of undocumented workers, to the point that they became the clear majority of the migrant population by the late nineties.

The government did little to remedy the situation except offer legal amnesties to workers who volunteered to register themselves and leave within a year, and these offers were usually followed by periods of deportation and crackdowns against the rest. Thus year-by-year, though the documented or undocumented status of individual migrant workers would change slightly, the basic system stayed in place.

Movement Emerges

As the nineties progressed, a migrant’s rights movement began to form that aimed at getting the government to recognize migrant’s rights and change state policy. A number of NGO’s, church groups, and labour activists banded together to form an umbrella organization, the Joint Committee for Migrants in Korea, and used their ties to local social movements and contacts within the South Korean government to advocate on behalf of migrant workers. The result was that, by 1998, these groups had won a number of legal victories for undocumented migrant workers and trainees, including, in precedent at least, protection of their contracts and severance pay, compensation for workplace accidents, and inclusion under the Labour Standards Act (Lim, 2002). In practice, however, these victories were seldom enforced. Migrants whom were injured, or spoke up to their employers were frequently deported or sent back to their countries. Therefore, the JCMK and other migrant groups increasingly singled out the Trainee System itself as the single major cause of injustice against migrant workers.

By 1999, a new trajectory emerged within the migrant’s movement itself. Migrants within the JCMK began to feel that if migrants were going to win broader rights and better working conditions, migrants would have to begin to organize themselves both in the workplace and at the policy table. In 1999, a group of migrants from the JCMK began to form their own group with the support of labour activists from South Korea’s democratic trade union movement. In 2001 they officially formed the Equality Trade Union-Migrant’s Branch, perhaps the only union anywhere consisting mostly of undocumented migrant workers. Espousing an organizing model that could be called social unionism or direct-action casework, their tactics included a mix a protest, counseling, and workplace action.

The ETU-MB represented a very public question, and that is whether or not there is a political space for the undocumented in South Korean society and politics. The answer to this question depends on official policy, of course, but also on the potential for migrants to organize themselves and the solidarity they receive from local social movements. To date the labor and civil society movements have supported many migrant-led initiatives from unions to television broadcasts. At the local level of the municipality there is a lot of support for migrant workers and efforts to integrate them into their local communities. There have also been efforts to secure migrants access to health care from local hospitals and to legal services by progressive lawyers. Yet at the level of government, the attitude is more ambivalent. Although steps have been made to see that migrant’s contracts are respected and workplace accidents compensated, undocumented migrants whom try to play a public, political role are almost always excluded.

The ETU-MB took the trainee system to task right away, and in a very public way, conducting large rallies of thousands of undocumented workers through downtown Seoul, and pressuring the government to follow through with introducing a proper work-permit system, which it finally did in July 2003 when it passed the bill for a 3-year Employment Permit System (EPS).

The EPS was certainly a step up from the Trainee system, including provisions that granted migrant workers access to health insurance, and formal protection under the Labour Standards Act. However, it was unevenly implemented and had several flaws that migrant’s groups were quick to point out. First, the EPS was only valid for three years, and migrants’ groups claimed that this would not be long enough for workers to save up and pay back the onerous debts they occurred to get to Korea while also provide for their families back home. Thus, at the end of three years, migrants under the EPS would most likely be encouraged to overstay. Second, migrants had to have their contracts renewed yearly by their employers and could not change workplaces, thus limiting their ability to collectively organize or leave an abusive workplace. Finally, the EPS was only extended to workers whom had been residing in Korea for less than four years, and this was seen by the migrant’s rights movement as the biggest betrayal. The workers whom been in the country the longest, who were more likely to have good relations with their employers, speak Korean, and feel a sense of belonging to the communities where they lived and worked were to be excluded.

Upon it’s introduction, Labour minister Kwang Ki-hong expressed himself that one of the purposes behind the bill was to limit the permanent settlement of migrant workers in South Korea, so it makes sense, in some ways, that workers with the strongest sense of belonging would be targeted, and, of course, this is exactly what happened.[2] After passing of the EPS bill, the government announced it largest crackdown effort to date, to begin on November 16th 2003, and targeting some 150,000 undocumented workers, including the majority of politicized migrant activists who had fought for the EPS.

The crackdown proceeded at a brutal pace. In the first two months of crackdown over 30,000 migrants left voluntarily while the government detained and deported over 10,000, at least ten more committed suicide. This was an unnecessarily violent process. A veritable state of exception was decreed around migrant’s rights, and this included the refusal of due process, indefinite detention and deportation, and physical assault by police and immigration officials on protests and rallies. As substantial as the number of deportations the crackdown had dual purpose and that was to also silence those migrant workers that were not scared into leaving. In an interview with the Korea Times during this period, Lim Chae Lim, an immigration official with Immigration Control Division of the Ministry of Justice stated:

The intention of the roundup is not to deport every undocumented migrant worker in the country but to give a warning to the rest. Even if we are successful in rounding up only some 10,000 (undocumented foreign workers), it will certainly give a warning to the remaining 110,000.

What was also unique about the crackdown and which confirms my argument about the government trying to silence workers was that it occurred, overwhelmingly, in public space. Though workplaces were periodically targeted, sting operations were carried out predominantly in the places where migrants congregate, denying migrant’s to what geographer Don Mitchell call’s the right to the city -- the right to be seen and heard in public space, to exist in public space in the barest possible sense-- confining them, instead, to the industrial estate areas where they work. The only public space migrants have safely occupied in South Korea is church sanctuary. Though many groups have tried to remedy the fact, participation in all other spaces brings with it the threat of danger, whether in the form of racialized harassment from employers, or the threats of immigration manhunt and police repression.

In response to the crackdown, the ETU-MB and the JCMK began nationwide a sit-in on November 15th 2003. The largest and most visible of which was the ETU-MB’s sit-in in front of Downtown Seoul’s MyeongDong Cathedral, a historical site of refuge for dissidents in South Korea. Over the first four months of this struggle from late October 2003 to late February 2004, the ETU-MB lost several of its key organizers to the immigration department but managed to keep up the sit-in for over a year until it ended last November. Currently, the number of undocumented migrants continues to rise, but for these migrants, the situation is far worse than before as the manhunt goes on and wages decline due to the increased desperation and precariousness of the situation for undocumented workers.

Jamie Doucette lives and writes from Vancouver, British Columbia. He helps maintain a blog on Korean social movements at

[1] Timothy Lim. The Changing Face of South Korea: The Emergence of Korea as a “Land of Immigration.” The Korea Society Quarterly, 16, Summer/Fall 2002.
[2] In an April 3, 2003 press conference, Labor minister Kwon Ki-hong mention that one of the purposes behind the implementation of the EPS was to keep foreign workers permanent settlement to a minimum. See

Side-Effects of the Crackdown On Migrants

At the end of last year, the Korean government announced that it was going to (yet again) crack down on illegal immigrants who overstayed their visas, as many would be due to expire in the first half of the new year. The Korea Times just posted an article about the most recent crackdown on migrant workers and its effect on the local economy in Ansan, an industrial city just southwest of Seoul which once had a foreign population 30,000 strong. I remember being at a rally in Ansan in late 2003, in the midst of a severe crackdown on migrants. Few migrant workers were willing to come out and demonstrate in such a repressive atmosphere (and in the presence of a dozen buses full of riot police), but a number of local storeowners took to the stage and declared their support for the migrant workers, who were obviously their core customers.

It was at this rally in Ansan that Anwar Hossain , who was just arrested last night (and who is pictured in the following link), and Samar Thapa, who was deported last year, shaved their heads to protest the EPS and the crackdown that began in November 2003.

Here's the Korea Times article:

Streets Empty As Hunt for Illegal Foreigners Continues

ANSAN (Yonhap) - The downtown district of this bustling industrial city just 40 km southwest of Seoul is haunted by an eerie silence, with stores closed, for-lease signs prominent and few passersby.

Wongok-dong, a suburb of mostly foreign migrant workers whose cosmopolitan culture once had it praised as a ``town without borders,’’ is rapidly becoming known as a ghost town.

As the South Korean government's current campaign against illegal immigrant workers continues, Wongok-dong is losing much of its 30,000-strong population.

Locals say almost half of the foreign citizens once resident there have left since the government crackdown started in September.

``They come by in cars at any time and arrest people walking on the streets,’’ said Yun Yeong-cheol, who runs a grocery store in Wongok-dong, referring to officials from the Ministry of Justice

in charge of implementing the government's policy to catch illegal immigrant workers.

Many of his regular customers, mostly from China and Russia, have returned home, and his sales have dropped by almost 40 percent.

``Here, 90 percent of the people hanging around are foreigners. Just grab one of them, and it'll most likely be an illegal alien. It's that easy,’’ he said.

On the afternoon this reporter visited, an eerie tension permeated the neighborhood as a group of men appeared from a van, dispersed themselves about the streets and began demanding pedestrians to show their identification cards.

``The town is empty, it feels chilly. The streets were once crowded with people, but now everything has disappeared,’’ said Li Gil-bok, an ethnic Korean born in China who later immigrated to Korea.

Li runs an agency for Chinese workers in Korea, the Korea-China Friendship Association, which campaigns on behalf of its members for due wages or retirement payouts from employers unwilling to shell out.

Offering translation, documentation and counseling services, Li struggles to get by on an income from membership fees of 5,000 won ($5) a month.

Membership of the association has dropped in recent months from 1,200 to about 400.

``Now is the worst time of paralysis for everyone. Fish need to live in water, and if there's no water, they die,’’ Li said.

In the good times before the crackdown began, restaurants, grocery stores and international calling card vendors in Wongok-dong enjoyed strong business well into the night, as the streets filled with the boisterous sounds of languages from around the world.

Along with the vibrancy, so has gone the source of income for those who remain. Almost every other restaurant in the area has ``For Lease’’ scrawled forlornly on a piece of paper stuck to the inside of its front window, with contact numbers written below.

As part of its policy to reduce the number of illegal immigrants, the Ministry of Justice has established a voluntary amnesty period for illegal immigrant workers who are ethnic Koreans from China and Russia, allowing them to re-enter legally after spending a year away.

The voluntary registration period that started in March has expedited the exodus of ethnic-Korean Chinese and Russian nationals from Wongok-dong.

Kim Yang-su, the ministry official in charge of managing the illegal immigrant worker problem, said he understands that local businesses are suffering as a result of the crackdown, but remains adamant it needs to continue for the greater good of the country.

An average 400 to 500 people are leaving the country every day under the new registration system implemented in March, he said, with 22,000 people having departed the country so far.

``There is a system allowing for foreigners to be legally employed here, but there are too many who arrive through illegal ways. We hope that they may leave voluntarily and not insist on staying here just because of their personal problems,’’ Kim said.

For Nelson Nwokejiobi, who came to Korea in 2001 after his business in Nigeria collapsed, the government's position is unrealistic because the chances are very slim that his government would ever allow him to receive another visa.

Many of his compatriots were forced to leave with no prospect of later returning.

``I'm asking, begging, the Korean government to reconsider,’’ said Nwokejiobi, whose work permit is to expire in less than two years.

``You see, a lot of us Nigerians have problems (in our home country) and that's why we come to Korea,’’ he said.

Nwokejiobi gets by on the wages he earns at a factory job in Ansan making the packaging that television sets are sold in. His night shift starts at 7 p.m. and ends at 8 a.m. the following morning, but often stretches to 24 hours when demand calls for it.

``I'm after money. I don't have money. I'm really enjoying my work,’’ he said.

05-13-2005 17:50

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Against Flexibilization

Just finished my latest journalistic contribution. Hopefully it should be up on ZNET in a day or two. If not then I'll let you know where it is. -J

Against Flexibilization: South Korean unions battle against the expansion of irregular work By Jamie Doucette

The fight against the expansion of irregular work to wide segments of the Korean workforce entered a new phase last week with the postponement of a series of government-initiated bills expanding the terms and conditions under which companies may use non-regular workers.

Bill Postponed

The “Non-Regular Workers’ Protection Law,” which was expected to be passed in the April extraordinary session of the National Assembly was postponed till the next extraordinary session in June. The new law is comprised of three different bills on the protection and use of temporary workers, ‘dispatched’ workers (workers hired as casual or contract workers through staffing agencies), and a revision of the National Labor Relations Committee’s labor arbitration process.

Following several months of protests, the bill was postponed after talks failed between labor and management groups participating in tripartite meetings that included South Korea’s two largest labor union confederations, government officials, and management groups.

Chairman Lee Mok-Hee of the Bill Deliberation Sub-Committee in the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee said in a briefing on May 3 that the issues that labor and management failed to agree upon were the terms of use of non-regular workers and the regularization of employees that have served a minimum period of time at a company and continue to be employed.

According to the Korean International Labour Foundation, the two unions had demanded that a strict definition be drafted that clearly articulates the circumstances under which fixed and short-term contract workers can be hired. The unions also stated that companies should not be allowed to hire irregular workers if their reasons are insufficient or if they plan to employ them for over a year. In addition, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) voiced its concern over the termination of staffing contracts as a punitive measure against trade union organizing –a practice that the KCTU would like to see made illegal -- and pressed for the regularization of casual workers who have already been employed for a total of more than two years. Employer’s groups, however, have only agreed to a tacit limit on non-regular employment and have demanded that those now on a contract for less than three years be exempt from such restrictions, and those who have worked for more than three years only be provided with protection against dismissal, rather than regularized as employees.

During the Bill Deliberation Sub-Committee’s press conference, Chairman Lee Mok-Hee suggested that the bill may in fact be processed at the next Extraordinary Session of the National Assembly based on the contents agreed upon so far, excluding the issue of fixed-term employment, but labor representatives are opposed to such a proposal.

Basic Labor Rights

In addition to setting strict conditions for the use of irregular workers, the KCTU has been campaigning for legislation to protect their basic labor rights. Under the Korean constitution, the three basic labor rights include the right to organize, the right to strike, and the right to a collective bargaining agreement.

In order to push forward with these demands, the presidents of FKTU and KCTU, the two largest trade union confederations in Korea, staged a twelve-day fast in front of the National Assembly building. They decided to end the fast on May 3rd following the announcement that the bill had been postponed. In a joint statement they reiterated their concerns about the bill.

“If there is even a small hole in one of the three principles—restriction on the usage of non-regular employment, equal pay for equal work, or the three basic labor rights for non-regular workers—, it will be impossible to prevent the proliferation of non-regular work and discrimination of non-regular workers.”[1]

The joint fast marks an increasing degree of collaboration between the country’s two largest labor groups whose relations have been tense in the past.

Protests Intensifying

Opposition to the government-initiated bill has been building steadily over the last eight months. In addition to the recent fast, the KCTU has coordinated general strikes against the bill on November 6, 2004 and April 1, 2004.

May Day demonstrations also focused heavily on the bills, in part stemming from police action on April 30th against on striking irregular workers at the Hynix-Magnachip semiconductor plant in Cheongju. May Day also saw police confrontations against irregular construction workers in Ulsan who had climbed an oil refinery tower to hang their union flag and a banner calling for collective bargaining talks with their employer, SK Construction. The construction workers had been on strike since March 18th and are calling for an 8-hour work day, paid holidays, minimum-standard safety equipment, and a designated place to eat and change clothes. Despite the legal nature of the strike, 12 workers have been jailed and 100 workers arrested since their struggle began. [2]

Finally, on Monday May 4th, the chairman of Samsung Group, Lee Kun-hee, was met with angry student protests while visiting Korea University. More than 100 students turned out to demonstrate against university’s decision to give Mr. Lee an honorary degree in philosophy. According to the JoongAng Daily, the group blocked the entrance to the hall where the award was to be given, criticizing Mr. Lee for the suppression of labor unions at Samsung and discrimination against irregular workers. [3]

Equal Pay for Equal Work

In a January 2005 report to an OECD mission, the KCTU criticized the government’s proposed bill, citing that the government’s refusal to make a written statement on the principle of “equal pay for equal work” for non-regular worker makes it extremely difficult to eradicate employer discrimination against irregular workers.

“Without a written policy statement on the principle of equal pay for equal work,” the reports states, “there is no standard on which to judge discrimination. The major problem that irregular workers face is the infringement of their three basic labor rights---the right to organize, the right to strike, and the right to a collective bargaining agreement---due to a clear lack of accountability from employers.” [4]

The KCTU’s criticism was strengthened in recent weeks by a report from South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission criticizing ‘unreasonable discrimination’ against irregular workers.

The Commission's report was the product of a 2-year taskforce study on irregular workers which reviewed their situation in the light of the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as major ILO conventions and the Korean Constitution, which guarantees the right to equal treatment for employees.

Cho Young-hoang, president of National Human Rights Commission, criticized the government-initiated bills, advocating that the bills be drafted again to accord with the principle that non-regular forms of employment be adopted only ‘exceptionally and limitedly.’

According to the Korea Herald, the commission stated that any new draft of the bill should clearly stipulate that a company can hire temporary workers only when there is an understandable need and, in addition, there should be a limit on the period that temporary workers can be used. The commission also stated that the principle of equal pay for equal work should be clearly stipulated in any future legislation. [5]

The 1997 crisis and the expansion of irregular work

The use of causal and contract workers was greatly expanded after the 1997 monetary crisis when the then President Kim Young-Sam administration passed a series of new labor laws, one of which allowed for companies in specific sectors to hire greater numbers of temporary and contract workers, including during times of labor action, causing an almost overnight rise in the number of temporary staffing agencies.

The KCTU claims that with the introduction of these temporary agencies, exploitation of temporary workers and job insecurity greatly increased. They also claim that under the guise of sub-contracting workers, practices of illegally hiring and laying-off of temporary workers have also become prevalent. [6]

Since the 1997 crisis, employer’s groups have been advocating greater flexibility in using irregular workers. According to the Korea Herald, the current labor minister Kim Dae-Hwan has also promoted further labor market reforms, and has pushed for the implementation of the recent government-initiated bills.

"The bills on irregular workers are aimed at reforming our labor market into that of more advanced countries, by boosting the flexibility in the rigid market and at the same time protecting and stabilizing workers' status," Minister Kim stated in a recent meeting with employer’s groups. [7]

How the government proposes to protect and recognize workers’ status without making them formal employees or enforcing the principle of equal pay for equal work seems unclear. Thus, labor leaders say, South Korea’s governing Uri Party seems to be following in the footsteps of other neo-liberal ‘third way’ social democratic parties, putting employer’s economic rights ahead of basic labor rights and demands for workplace democracy and equality from labor unions.

Punitive Anti-Labor Practices

Many in the labor movement have also expressed fears that the proposed legislation will bring further unrest and suppression of labor by being used to dissuade or prevent trade union action across a rising number of workplaces. The unions claim that the government is making it harder to declare a legal strike through introducing measures aimed at enforcing compulsory arbitration, as well as intervening on strike ballot voting procedures, and preventing non-regular workers from organizing altogether; which, says the KCTU, will lead to more conflict between workers and government, and harsher suppression against workers in the labor movement.

To support their argument, the KCTU, in their report to the OECD mission, chronicle an increase, over the last three years, in employer’s claims for damages, provisional seizure of individual property, and forced arbitration in cases of workplace action.

For example, the Hanwon Country Club, whose union went on strike for over two months near the end of 2004, has filed for provisional seizure against the union, including 240 million won (230,000 $US) for the apartments of two union members and 50 million won for real estate belonging to another two members. Bank accounts of around 30 union members have also been seized.

Similar actions by employers in 2003 resulted in rash of suicides by worker’s who had literally seen their livelihoods seized and sensed no other alternative. In January 2002, Bae Dal-Ho, a union member of Doosan Heavy Industries branch of Korean Metal Workers Union (a member of the KCTU) set himself on fire in protest of his employer’s claim for damages and provisional seizure of his personal property and wage assets that had been ordered in response to a workplace action that had been declared illegal. Kim Joo-Ik, member of Hanjin Heavy Industries branch of the Korean Metal Worker’s Union, and Lee Hae-Nam, president of the Sewon Technical Trade Union also committed suicide in similar protests through self-immolation during the same year.

As the problem gained wider public attention in 2003, the government promised several times that it will find a resolution, however, there have not been any substantial solutions offered to deal with the issue to date. In addition, the government itself has not withdrawn similar claims against it’s own workers in the public sector.

According to the KCTU’s statement to the OECD mission, as of January 2004, the total amount of claims for damages and provisional seizure of assets totaled 110.09 billion won (or a 110 million US dollars) over 41 workplaces, 33.48 billion won of which coming in the public sector over 5 workplaces. [8]

In response to the government’s continuing efforts to introduce bills on labor market reform without guarantees of workplace equality or basic labor rights, the KCTU is calling for stronger international monitoring of Korean labor practices and for other activists and trade unionists to support the KCTU in their struggle against the proposed bills. As part of the strongest labor movement in East Asia, they believe that their struggle can play a significant role in developing solidarity against the flexibilization and the expansion of irregular work that they see as a new hallmark of capitalist globalization in South Korea and across industrialized countries in general.

Jamie Doucette lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. He helps maintain a blog on Korean social movements that can be found at

1. Korean International Labour Foundation. Labour News (May 4, 2005). 2.Posted on International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) website, May 5, 2005
3.Korea University embarrassed by protestors. Joong Ang Daily. May 4th, 2005.
4.KCTU Report on Recent Situation of Labour Laws and Industrial Relations For the Meeting with OECD Mission 18th January, 2005.
5.Korea Herald (2005.04.15)
6.Lee Soo-Ho, President, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). April 13, Call for International Solidarity for Korean Workers in the their Struggle Against Bills to Expand Irregular Labor. See
7.Korea Herald. Ibid.
8.KCTU ‘Report’ibid.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Students confront Samsung chief at Korea University

Just off the wire. It appears that some students disrupted ceremonies at Korea University conferring an honourary degree on Lee Kun Hee of the Samsung group. The students cited his notorious suppression of labour organizing, exploitation of irregular workers and evasion of taxes among other reasons for their protest. Here is an article from the Joong Ang daily (here) that you can read, followed by a response from the student group All Together, which you can read below or find on their site here.


Protest against the presentation of Doctorate degree to Lee Kun-hee was Just.

The people who have coldly turned their faces away from the sufferings and painful outcries of temporary workers are making a fuss about "the deplorable incident that took place at the presentation of honorary Ph.D. degree to Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee" (Eo Yun-dae, Korea University Chancellor) as if an end of the world is coming.

Korea University Chancellor Eo Yun-dae expressed a deep apology with a big bow while presenting an honorary doctorate degree in Philosophy to Lee Kun-hee who really deserves a Ph.D. in repressing workers and evading taxes. He then resigned along with his executive officers. There is a talk of taking disciplinary actions against the students.

Mainstream newspapers all lashed at the students for upsetting 'Dr.' Lee Kun-hee whose wealth in stock alone is worth more than $2 billion saying the students had "no courtesy" (Chosun Ilbo) and are "far from being open minded" (Donga Ilbo). Released by PSPD, an NGO, last year, a report tracing the lines of intimate connection in Korean high society revealed that there is a strong connection among the three major conservative newspapers centered on Samsung.

Information and Communication Minister Jin Dae-je, former employee of Samsung Electronics who profited $1 million in 4 months when the price of Samsung Electronics stock jumped in 2003 also came out in defense of his 'chairman'. Surely, ruling and opposition political parties and Chongwadae (Presidential Office) who received more than 38.5 billion won for their illegal presidential election fund could not just stand by and do nothing for their 'chairman'.

The court, public prosecutors, and National Assembly have already demonstrated the 'open mindedness' proper. Concerning a case of 12 former and current workers of Samsung SDI who have been surveiled illegally through duplicated hand-phones by the company, the public prosecutors announced the result of their investigation saying that since it is impossible to identify 'someone' who duplicated the hand-phones it is impossible to charge 'someone'. Shortly after, they closed the case saying that since 'someone' has not been identified they cannot continue investigating the Samsung officials.

The court sentenced Kim Seong-hwan, President of Samsung General Trade Union, to imprisonment for 3 years and 10 months for committing libel against Samsung SDI.

The National Assembly Committee on environment and labor persistently tried and succeeded in avoiding the calling of Samsung SDI as a witness to an NA inspection of the government. To such an act, Rep. Dan Byeong-ho said, "I saw a glimpse of the real power of Samsung who can control even the National Assembly”. Even today, the National Assembly is talking about an independent prosecutor's investigation of the recent oil gate, but no one is interested in the Democratic Labor Party's proposal to have an independent prosecutor's investigation of the Samsung SDI incident.

Chancellor Eo criticized the students saying they have "crossed the line by committing an undemocratic and violent act".

However, the protesting students have only formed a scrum and have never used violence.

An anonymous student posted a protest in the school's internet bulletin board asking "have you ever considered the feeling of professors in the Department of Philosophy who had to attend the ceremony after receiving a notice telling them to attend without explanation?"

Chancellor Eo indicated that the school is presenting the honorary degree to Lee Kun-hee for his achievements in elevating the level of the paradigm of understanding and thinking in management a notch through his new management and being an outstanding example in realizing a society where people live in harmony.

Indeed Lee Kun-hee has increased the level of the paradigm of repressing worker a notch through all kinds of illegal means to maintain his anti-union policy like evading inheritance tax by paying only 1.6 billion won when handing out 1.5 trillion won worth of wealth to his 4 children, giving slush funds via a book of bearer bonds worth 15 billion won when others were delivering cash in truck loads, and carrying out high-tech surveillance, kidnapping, GPS tracking of the workers.

What about his records in realizing a society where people live in harmony?

Lee Kun-hee is currently spending 80 billion won to build his own 'family town' on a 1600 pyeong (1 pyeong equals 3.5 sq. yard) land. The wage difference between the executive officers and workers at Samsung SDI is as many as 125 times.

When Lee's family went on a vacation to Germany for a week early this year, 50 people had to prepare the 'emperor's vacation' for 2 months.

A professor in Hong Kong University who gave a business consultation to Samsung in 1995 once said "although Samsung presents itself as a socially responsible corporation, in fact, there are more than 238 cases of violation of environmental, labor, and social welfare related laws.

Donga Ilbo wrote "a mischief by a handful of students disgraced the image of Korea University with 100 years of history". However, by protesting against the tax evader who has a long record of committing vicious repression against workers, the protesting students have elevated the honor of all the students at Korea University.

Such an act by the protesters following the will of the majority, workers and people, and not the few chabeols and the privileged is completely just.

Comment on the Campaign to Defend the Anti-Lee Kun-hee Protest at Korea University

'David wins against Goliath' was the title of All Together's comment issued on May 5.

The social repercussion created by the protest against the presentation of doctorate degree to Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee led by All Together members and students at Korea University on May 2 was enormous.

On May 4, more than 7 newspapers covered the incident in their editorials while reporting it in detail in the society section. Most of the newspapers including the Chosun Ilbo called for the witch hunt of All Together.

Even the Presidential Office (Cheongwadae), the government, and the bosses lashed at the student protesters as if it was a personal matter.

The fiercest attack came from the Korea University administration demonstrating again its close connection with Lee Kun-hee aside from the recent 40 billion won contribution.

Soon various student left groups in Korea University who participated in the protest broke under the strong pressure and retreated.

In such a situation, All Together members at Korea University threw themselves in the campaign to defend the protest which now became a struggle of David against Goliath. If the All Together members were demoralized it would have been a disaster for them and All Together as a whole as Samsung and the right would immediately start the witch hunt. That is why we need to give utmost praise and strongest support to the All Together members at Korea University.

On May 4, All Together published a special edition titled "Defending Anti-Lee Kun-hee Protest." A total of 60,000 copies were printed and was distributed at 14 major college campuses in Seoul and 17 busy streets in Seoul and Incheon cities.

Many of our members joined the distribution despite the short notice. Not only student members but local branch members participated in the distribution after work or during their lunch breaks.

At Gangnam Subway station where 3,300 copies were distributed within 2 hours, numerous pedestrians took a batch saying they would like to distribute along their ways. A DLP member who happened to pass by joined our members for more than 30 minutes and help in the distribution.

In most campuses and locals, our special edition of All Together stimulated further debates and discussions while drawing active supporters to us.

Shortly after the start of distribution, a call came to the main office. A university professor was on the other line saying he was calling after having read the special edition of All Together. He always wanted to do something against the atrocious acts of Samsung and now he would like to give a donation to All Together.

A student at Konkuk University also called after reading the special edition and said he is opposed to war and had a strong hatred against this society where the poor always remain poor and the rich always remain rich. He expressed he would like to join All Together.

A former Samsung E-Mart worker sent a letter thanking the student protesters saying when he was in a one-person protest in front of an E-Mart store after being fired a person came up to him and said "did you see Lee Kun-hee's embarrassing scene? Cheer up!" He was overjoyed to hear that and wanted to thank the protesters.

The Democratic Labor Party was the first to defend the anti-Lee Kun-hee protest by issuing a statement on May 3. It was a perfect timing with an appropriate statement. In the morning of May 4, Son Seok-chun wrote an editorial in Oh My News, an internet news, defending the student protesters.

Soon after, All Together members started to distribute the 60,000 copies of the special edition. These are the reason why Lee Kun-hee retreated on May 4.

We have won an important victory. But the fight is not completely over yet. Even at this moment, All Together members at Korea University is preparing to protest against the school's plan to discipline the student protesters and against Roh Moo-hyun if he decides to visit the university for the 100th anniversary ceremony on May 5.

We must not put down our guards just yet. We appeal to all members who know any of the members at Korea University in person to call them and give support and solidarity.

May 4, 2005
All Together

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Cracks in North Korea's Information Blockade

In recent years, North Korea has gone from being an almost unknown country to one which we now know a great deal about. North Korea's nuclear program and its relations with the US have brought it notoriety, of course, and the DPRK's opening to tourists has resulted in personal snapshots of Pyongyang and the DMZ appearing on the internet. Information has even occasionally been provided by the North Korean government itself; the most significant recent example would be the release of the DPRK 2004 Nutrition Assessment Survey, which revealed a wealth of information about how the famine of the 1990s has affected its citizens. It is mostly due to refugees, however, that we now know as much as we do about the 'hermit state'. The famine of the 1990s spurred many to flee to China and South Korea; many thousands have made their way to the latter country in the past five years. These refugees have brought with them stories of life in the DPRK that abounded with references to starvation, public executions, and prison camps.

As a result of this, a great deal of information on North Korea's prison camp system has appeared in the last few years. The 'The Hidden Gulag', published by the HRNK, contains defectors' testimony and satellite photos. It includes testimony by Kang Chol-hwan, whose harrowing experiences are described in the memoir 'Aquariums of Pyongyang'. Stories of testing chemical weapons on prisoners (sometimes on entire families) surfaced early in 2004. That some refugees may be exaggerating is entirely possible. That they all are seems rather unlikely. Refugees have also told stories of the collapse of the public distribution system and the cessation of factory activity during the famine, which led to a rapid growth in markets (like the one pictured above) across the country. Andrei Lankov's article on the development of markets and the early signs of capitalism in the North is required reading.

There are other sources of information besides refugees, however; ones which have the ability to flow in two directions. Electronic technology is changing the outside world's perception of North Korea, just as it is changing North Korean perceptions of the outside world. Whether the change in perception is the former or latter depends on whether information is leaving or entering North Korea. Information entering the DPRK could potentially have a very negative effect upon the population, at least in the eyes of the government. North Korea's rulers maintain an information blockade which keeps its citizens in the dark about the rest of the world, especially South Korea. Two rather important pieces of technology have been testing the effectiveness of this blockade recently. The first is the cellphone. Chinese made cellphones (and prepaid phone cards) have been appearing in North Korea in recent months and are popular items in black markets there. Several articles have appeared about this recently, though the best would have to be Rebecca MacKinnon's, which I urge you to read. The other electronic agent of change is the VCR. As DVD players have become more popular in northern China, people there have been casting off their old VCRs, which have found their way into black markets in North Korea. A March 15 NYT article (now unavailable online) had this to say about VCRs:

"They are within the reach of the average family," said Dr. Lankov, who regularly interviews recent defectors. "They watch, almost exclusively, smuggled and copied South Korean movies and drama. Only a few weeks after airing here, they will go throughout North Korea."

More than showing middle-class family lifestyles, which can be staged in a studio, the soap operas also provide images of a modern Seoul - the forest of high-rise buildings, the huge traffic jams, the late-model cars.

With such images showing a stark contrast with primitive conditions in North Korea, Mr. Kim ordered the formation of a special prosecutor's office last November to arrest people who deal in South Korean goods, largely videotapes, or who use South Korean expressions or slang, analysts in South Korea say.

To crack down on home viewing of imported videotapes, the North Korean police developed the strategy of encircling a neighborhood in the evening, cutting off electricity, then inspecting players to find videotapes stuck inside, according to Young Howard, international coordinator of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, a Seoul-based group. Recent defectors have also told Mr. Howard that police cars with loudspeakers have patrolled neighborhoods, warning residents to maintain their "socialist lifestyle" and to shun South Korean speech and clothing and hairstyles, he said.

This article is no longer available (for free), but Newsweek has just published an article which is very similar, and which focuses on how the Chinese city of Dandong is becoming a conduit for foreign goods entering North Korea. It's well worth your time to read; I found it thanks to Lost Nomad.

Electronic information can also leave North Korea in many ways. The most memorable event of 2004 was the the train explosion in Ryongchon, when dozens of photos were taken of the North Korean town by foreign journalists allowed into the country. Recently, however, there have been examples of a more clandestine nature appearing on the internet or in Japanese or South Korean media. In early January, a video, apparently taken by a North Korean military officer, was smuggled out and broadcast on Japanese TV showing street children in the northeastern city of Cheongjin, as well as markets and an outdoor trial. Photos from the video appeared in South Korean newspapers; one of them is at the top of this post.

Less than two weeks later, a video appeared which was apparently made by a dissident organization in the north. In the video we see demands for freedom and democracy written over a poster of Kim Jong Il, followed by a speech denouncing the North Korean leader. More information is provided by Oranckay.

Then, in mid March, footage of a public execution (something described many times by refugees, though denied by the regime) was smuggled out and appeared on Japanese television. More information, as well as links to the video, can be found here, while Andrei Lankov's article on the history of public executions in the DPRK can be found here.

The most recent images to come out of North Korea were not taken in a clandestine manner; in fact, they were shown on live television for all to see. On March 31st, a soccer riot took place in Pyongyang stadium during a World Cup qualifying game between the DPRK and Iran after a 'wrong call' against the North Korean team was made by the referee. The DPRK lost the game and fans surrounded the Iranian team's bus after the game. Lankov wrote a article about how unprecedented this kind of loss of control by authorities is, which can be found here.

In the first months of this year alone, many images of North Korea have been appearing for the world to see, just as last year broke records for the number of North Korean refugees making it to South Korea. While the flood of images is likely to continue, the flood of refugees to the ROK likely will not; that will be dealt with in another post.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Monday, May 02, 2005


From the Korea Herald:

May Day underscores solidarity between two labor umbrella groups

Thousands of workers yesterday celebrated May Day, the international day of solidarity for working people, with mostly traditional rallies and marches across the country. But this year, the camaraderie among the nation's two most powerful, yet rival, trade unions was unusually high.

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions, the largest umbrella labor group in Korea with 940,000 members, marked the international labor day with a marathon run. About 2,000 workers participated in the event, which started at 10 a.m. in Yeouido, central Seoul.

In the afternoon, about 25,000 workers affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, second largest with 620,000 members but the most militant labor group, held a rally in Gwanghwamun area, central Seoul.

The two groups' presidents took part at each other's gathering, giving a solidarity speech for the first time and speaking with one voice against the government-driven irregular workers bills.

Forming a united front against the bills, FKTU's Lee Yong-deuk and KCTU's Lee Soo-ho have been fasting together in a makeshift tent in front of the parliament buildings, central Seoul, since April 22. Yesterday was the 10th day of their first-ever joint hunger strike.

Intense negotiations are under way between representatives of labor, management and lawmakers.

"Through this solidarity formed between the FKTU and KCTU, we will win this fight and enact labor bills that will root out the discriminatory practices against irregular workers and... safeguard their labor rights," FKTU's Lee said at the union's May Day event in Yeouido.

The three parties have agreed to conclude the negotiations quickly so the bills can be enacted in the current Assembly session but, even after 10 rounds of negotiations, they have so far failed to hammer out an agreement.

The bills, if passed as drafted, would allow firms to hire irregular workers more freely, thus bolstering labor market flexibility.

Labor demands that companies should hire temporary staff only where circumstances warrant, for instance during maternity leave of permanent employees, to prevent excessive reliance on the low-paid irregulars.

The national human rights panel also recommended a fair wage guarantee be stipulated in the bill to protect irregulars from exploitation. It also wants only specific industries to use temporary workers.

However, business argues that if labor's demand finds its way into the bill, it would discourage companies from hiring temporary workers and thus drive up unemployment.

The main ruling and opposition party lawmakers made it clear that they would go ahead with the labor reform bills as drafted at the plenary session slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, even if labor and management fail to reach a compromise.

By Lee Sun-young

And in other May Day News was the official launch of Internet TV program for Migrant Workers. The state-funded Migrant Workers Support Center said Thursday it will start the MNTV (, which will show programs to help migrant workers adjust to Korean society, on May Day... Here's the link.