Thursday, July 07, 2005

Summer of discontent?

I haven't been making as many indepth posts as I would like to lately, so here is an attempt to summarize a few current issues and provide, hopefully, a tinge of analysis.

As covered below, the summer strike season is heating up. The FKTU, yesterday, pulled out from the government sponsored tripartite talks and held a one day strike demanding the resignation of the labour minister Kim Tae Hwan for not safeguarding conditions surrounding irregular workers sufficiently, nor preventing violence against striking workers, resulting, indirectly, in the death of FKTU regional head Kim Dae Wan at a picket line over a month ago -- see our story on it here.

FKTU President Lee Yong-deuk was quoted as saying "There is no more social dialogue... Labor Minister Kim Dae-hwan is the one that should be held responsible for the rupture between labor and government".


I've heard that labor minister Kim Tae Hwan used to be a consultant to the labour movement, so perhaps his inability to introduce progressive legislation speaks to either a change of heart or to some of the constraints the government faces under pressure from the large chaebol and other forces of global neoliberalism. After the 1997 crisis, the chaebol pressured the government, with the help of the IMF, to introduce labour market reform expanding the use of irregular and contingent workers to lower wages. The increase in the use of migrant labour since then can also be seen, indirectly, as a form of expansion of irregular work, because the status of migrants is precarious and their wages low.

Since the death of (the union leader) Kim Dae Wan, the FKTU, long regarded as a conservative union, has been mobilizing its members in protest of the government's policies. According to the Korean herald, thousands of workers affiliated with the Federation of Korean Trade Unions staged a one-day strike from 8 a.m. yesterday, culminating in a in a massive rally in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul.

Official and unofficial sources put the number of strikers and people in attendance at between 20,000 - 60,000.
The Herald reports that the FKTU represents over 820,000 workers, encompassing various industries. The last mass general strike they participated in took place in December 1996, lasting for 23 days with more than 260,000 participating.

Other labour action in recent days has included slowdowns taking place by the Korean Air pilots union and the Korean Federation of Hospital Workers' Unions' 33 000 members are set to strike for 24 hours on Friday.
Contracts are normally negotiated during the summer months in Korea making it a key strike period, other periods of worker activity are the anniversary of Jun Tae Il's death in November, and May Day, both are unofficial workers' holidays.

There was a short article here yesterday on migrant workers in the Choson. Apparently the Justice Department said Wednesday it repatriated some 59,276 illegal residents in the first half of the year, some 8,000 more than during the whole of last year. However, as of the end of June the number of foreigners staying illegally in the country had increased by 8,000 from late last year to 196,000. Just goes to show that the crackdown continues, ineffectively.

A great deal of this number is also from workers whose permits have expired but have chosen to overstay in order to continue working. The Equality Trade Union (ETU), years ago when trying to sit at the negotiating table over the new employment permit system, said that any system would have to be longer than three years because that is simply not enough time to repay the debts they incur to come to Korea, legally or illegally, through brokers, recruitment firms and so on.

It's hard to clearly get an idea of how much workers pay to come to Korea, but I've heard of it costing generally in the range of 5000-15,000 dollars, not including a number of other hidden costs that workers incur in Korea in addition to that. I'm not a policy maker but it seems to me that rather than repressing migrant's groups as they did to the ETU and now the MTU, they should have listened to them as they have much better knowledge of the conditions on the ground and motives for overstaying. Not much has changed though, seems that Anwar Hussain, leader of the Migrant's Trade Union (successor of the ETU) is still in detention for trying to organize migrants to have their voices heard (see our other stories about it here and here).

Finally, here are some pictures from the recent rallies, courtesy of the FKTU, enjoy!


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