Monday, October 31, 2005

The DLP loss, Elvis and the right

Kotaji has a short post up on the Democratic Labour Party's (DLP) recent by-election loss in the working class city of Ulsan that is worth reading. He makes the point that perhaps the growing number of non-regular and low wage workers there as well as the recent corruption scandals with the nation's two large labour federations may have something to do with this.

A Korea Times article focusing on the loss quotes DLP representative Sim Sang-Jung :

We should have paid more attention to the livelihood of non-regular workers and low-income earners in Ulsan, instead of focusing too much on the unionized workers of the big plant... Something unimaginable just took place in Ulsan, which is practically the land of laborers... The defeat is feared to seriously hurt the party and its leadership.

It should be pointed out that there have been strong efforts to regularize non-regular workers and fight for wage increases by the local, militant unions in Korea, and these struggles have been faily militant and puntuated with strong violence from the state, not to mention the protest-suicides of workers. However, the government continues to push for more and more labor flexibility in an economy that has some of the highest levels of subcontracting out there to the point that some workers have trouble identifying who indeed they are producing for or indeed who really owns their company -- there are lots of case of chaebol ownshership of smaller firms through dummy corporations or partial ownership and the like.

One wonders, in fact, if the ranks of younger, casual and non-regular workers, are following a trajectory similar to what has been happening in recent years in Japan, with younger people of this sort voting for the rhetoric of the right as they've become dis-illusioned with the potential of the left. I'm not exactly sure what current demographics are like in Ulsan but it would be interesting to see if there are indeed parrallels to generation of temps, freeters, and casual workers that Gavin Mccormack discusses in his recent article on the Koizumi election, postal reform and decline of Japan's developmental/welfare state -- worth reading if only for the picture of Koizumi's album of his favorite Elvis songs for karaoke.

Ok, I couldn't resist posting it, but, humor aside, Mccormack makes the point that Koizumi developed a rhetoric full of fun sound bytes and other publicity stunts that appeals to this youthful voters as it distances him from the culturally conservative image of his party, while promising to undertake 'reform.' Coincidentally, the only thing that he is reforming are the institutions that created a fairly equal distribution of work and weath in the post war years. Thus, appealing to images of 'cool' from the very generation cut off from economic equality, he secures the conditions to erode further these mechanisms of redistribution.

This issue is too complex to explore in this short post, especially in the Korean context so I'll only hazard a few more comments; namely, that I think its too early to attribute this loss to a growing depolitized electorate, but nonetheless I do think it is important to think about what the potential tendencies of a generation of workers lacking clear employment status and disciplined by retrenchment, restructurturing, and the vagarity of the market can or will be. Perhaps to do this we should look a bit more at how the GOP appealed to these voters (last time I checked the GOP weren't so 'cool,' but maybe they are), the development of working class youth culture in Korea (which doesn't seem as differentiated in Korea as it is in Japan at the moment), and, perhaps, how the DLP articulates itself in the context of the previous two.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Whither Tripartitism: Part 2

Changes are underway in the Korean labor movement today, as a new ad hoc executive commitee has formed in the wake of Lee Soo Ho' resignation (check here and here at the Korea Herald).

Though not oppossed to tripartite negotiation per se, the KCTU's new interim charman Jun Jae-hwan, from the Metal Intustry Trade Union, has said that he sees no point in rejoining the tripartite committee for as long as the government sticks to its labor reform plans (an issue you can read more about on our blog here, or here at the le monde diplomatique).

As for relations between the nation's two labour federations, the KCTU and the FKTU, it will be interesting to see if they continue to plan joint actions or if they begin to diverge in tactics and strategy -- for those interested in some of debate around different strategies pursued by Korean labour see this working paper by Kevin Gray.

In other Korean labour news, truckers are planning on going out on an illegal strike wednesday, as the number of non-regular workers active in the economy continues to rise one wonders if this sort of action will continue.

Update ----October 27, 2005 ---- The two truckers unions, Korea Cargo Transport Workers Union postponed their decision on a general strike yesterday until after it holds a vote on a government-brokered deal on Monday.
Meanwhile, dump truck drivers, who are part of a larger construction workers union, decided to end their strike Tuesday after union members voted to end their strike that started on Oct. 13 -- I don't think they got an agreement, however. Both unions are part of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Whither Tripartism?

Judging from this recent Korea Herald article, it seems that the struggle against the governments attempt to "flexibilize" labor is still ongoing with no clear resolution in the future, but several possible trajectories. Currently the FKTU and the KCTU, Korea's two large labor confederations, are boycotting tripartite talks between management, government, and labor, demanding Labor Minister Kim Dae-Whan resign.

The article also reports that union leaders of the two federations said the government would "face increased troubles, including a general strike, if the government goes ahead with a set of measures pending at the National Assembly that would allow companies to expand the use of irregular workers."

At the moment labor groups are meeting with the prime minister Lee Hae-chan to get around the impasse. I'm not sure if the situation will continue like this or whether one will see a more gradual reincorporation of labor into the tripartite talks, but perhaps with a more unified voice both at the table -- in the form of a possible FKTU-KCTU merger?-- or in the streets, with more joint actions and protest -- something which has, indeed, picked up since last June. Both unions also boycotted an International Labor Organization regional conference which was scheduled to be held this month, but was cancelled when the groups withdrew.

Another set of issues that seem decidely off the table in triparte discussions are the work conditions for migrant workers, both documented and undocumented. Early this week, the Ministry of Labor announced their latest plans to curtail the use of undocumented workers and expand the use of permitted workers. However, their strategy looks certain to cause more social strife by giving employers incentive to help deport their own workers. The basic structure of the permit system, however, is not being altered in any fundamental way, so many of the problems that we have discussed previously on this blog are certain to continue (read more here).

For the full articles, continue reading.

Labor groups threaten to step up struggle

The nation's two labor umbrella groups threatened to heighten their struggle against government measures aimed to increase flexibility in the job market.

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions reiterated that they would continue to boycott a tripartite dialogue table with the government and employers unless Labor Minister Kim Dae-whan resigns.

They said the government would face increased troubles, including a general strike, if the government goes ahead with a set of measures pending at the National Assembly that would allow companies to expand the use of irregular workers.

Their separate announcements came a day before their planned meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan today to discuss normalizing strained relations between the labor force and the government.

Representatives from the union groups said that they will convey their demands directly to the prime minister regarding the government's move to legislate a package of labor reforms.

The labor unions rejected dialogue with the government in July in protest against the labor-related bills.

Union groups said that today's meeting is aimed at seeking a new communication channel to the government since both groups have rejected Labor Minister Kim Dae-whan as a dialogue partner. Kim is expected to attend the meeting.

The meeting was proposed by the union groups when they asked President Roh Moo-hyun to become directly involved in resolving the confrontation between the government and the union community during a press conference held in August.

Labor unions expect today's meeting to be a turning point for both sides but said that it is hard to see how substantial changes mary occur unless the government changes its "anti-labor attitude."

Lee Yong-deuk, the FKTU and Union and Lee Soo-ho, the head of the KCTU reportedly had an urgent meeting on Sunday to organize one voice to tackle the government's labor policies and hamper possible disruption of the labor community.

The FKTU and KCTU have recently discussed a merger plan between the two major union groups to increase their bargaining power.

In a show of solidarity, the two groups have boycotted hosting an International Labor Organization conference which was scheduled to be held this month.

Korea Herald (2005.09.27)

Employers who make their illegal foreign workers voluntarily depart from Korea will be legitimately

ㅁThe Ministry of Labor will allow employers who make their illegal foreign workers voluntarily depart by the end of this year to newly employ as many foreign workers as they eject.
- The Ministry will also guarantee that illegal foreign workers receive no disadvantageous treatment when they are put on a roster of registered job seekers, if they voluntarily depart from Korea.

ㅁIf employers make their illegal foreign workers voluntarily depart from September 25 to December 31, 2005 and then submit a document confirming their departure issued by airports or harbors to an Employment Security Center when they apply for the issuance of employment permissions, they will be allowed to newly employ as many foreign workers as they eject.

* In this case, employers can hire the same number of new foreign workers as that of departed ones regardless of the number of foreign workers employed by a workplace.

○ However, replacement workforce will be supplied only to employers who receive employment permissions before the end of March 2006.

○ Employers who make their illegal foreign workers voluntarily depart during the special period will be exempted from fines and the restriction on issuance of visas to foreign workers will be lifted.

ㅁMeanwhile, illegal foreign workers who depart from Korea during the period under the guidance of employers will be exempted from fines and the period during which their re-entry to Korea is restricted will be shortened. Which is the same as what currently applies to illegal foreign workers voluntarily departing from Korea.

- If the foreign workers are those who came from the sending countries selected under the Employment Permit System, they will not be given any disadvantageous treatment in the process of registering themselves as job seekers.

ㅁUnder the previous measure to encourage the voluntary departure of legal foreign workers, which had been implemented between March and August this year, employers were entitled to be supplied with replacement workforce only when they made legal foreign workers voluntarily depart from Korea.

- However, the new measure is expected to reduce the number of illegal foreign workers and contribute to minimizing workforce vacancy in industrial sites by allowing employers who make illegal foreign workers voluntarily depart to be supplied with legal foreign workforce.

Ministry of Labor (2005.09.29