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.

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