Monday, January 30, 2006

new feature!

Just in case any of you didn't notice, I've recently added labourstart Korea's newswire (which I also help maintain) to the bottom left corner of our blog. I think it is a good feature as I don't obviously have the time to post on everything that comes up and they often have good daily coverage of events as they unfold. Labourstart also has newsfeeds from a variety of other countries that you can incorporate into your own web pages.

bye bye kim tae hwan

An article appeared in today's Korea Herald titled "Outgoing labour minister a hit with business" that takes a brief look at Kim tae-hwan's career. From the title you can see that he was certainly popular with some. It seems he has been tough on the labour movement, even though he was previously an advisor to it. Seems also that he has done a lot to weaken the benefits enjoyed by regular workers while trying to do something to protect, yet expand, non-regular forms of work. The article points out that this is in tune with an OECD report calling for the government to ease employment protection for regular workers and to provide a social safety net for non regular workers. The OECD report, however, seems more suited to the interests of Transnational Corporations, or domestic chaebol, that aren't too interested in providing high wages or long term benefits for their workers.

The article also seems to think it is a good thing to have set about creating a strict neoliberal labour market, by punishing political strikes by unions and intervening in others. What the article, and perhaps Kim, seem to ignore, however, is the fact that a flexible labour market is perhaps not a particularly desirable outcome for all if by flexibility we mean the enhanced right to hire and fire workers on a whim, or deny them benefits (see article below for some of the criticisms of flexibilization in Korea). Especially in a country without a strong social safety net. The government does deserve some marks in attempting to expand one, it is true, but this comes as a bandaid measure to ease some of the social conflict its labour market already generates and will generate in the future if such forms of job insecurity continue to proliferate. Concepts like flexibilty may sound desirable, as indeed certain forms of job-task and production flexibilty are, but the neoliberal meaning of the word above is not the kind of flexibilty that invests in workers skills or capacities, instead it is the type of flexibity which offers to pay workers less for the jobs they are already doing.

The unions have been pursuing a militant fight against the upcoming labour reform bills however they are also enduring some internal strife of their own. Kotaji has a few recent posts about how this has affected the democratic labour party internal elections, the results, and their aftermath that are worthy to read. Hopeful the labour movement will continue to rebuild and rejuvinate, and perhaps with a more sensitive labour minister for whom expanding precarious and irregular forms of works do not appear as inevitable, or even, necessarily desirable.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Pressure on the NHRC

There was an interesting article in the Korea Times yesterday titled "CEO's call for disbanding of National Human Right's Commission." I'll reprint the article below momentarily, but a few comments seem necessary first, however. The NHRC has been trying to get rights of migrants and irregular workers recognized for some time now. Indeed, we've tried to cover some of their proposals on our blog to date, recently with the sit-in in the NHRC office by the MTU, and in the battle over labour flexibilization that the NHRC has weighed in on.

The big five employers groups -- the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Businesses, the Korea International Trade Association and the Korea Employers Federation (KEF) -- were pretty blunt in their message opposing the NHRC's proposals claiming that "[t]he commission’s recommendations only reflect the progressive segment of our society.’’ I guess employer's are mad that their 'retrogressive' views aren't in the document.

Here's the story:

CEOs Call for Disbanding of Human Rights Commission
By Choi Kyong-aeStaff Reporter

Korean business leaders Tuesday united to urge the government to reject what they call a labor-friendly set of recommendations by the National Human Rights Commission.

``The commission’s recommendations only reflect the progressive segment of our society,’’ they said in a joint statement after an emergency meeting at Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul.

They called for the replacement of all 11 members of the commission with those who would ``broadly represent the national sentiment.’’

Their collective action came after the commission last week made its final draft for a ``national action plan’’ for the government to minimize the employment of non-regular workers and reduce its right to intervene and settle labor disputes, among other things.

The government will pick and choose from among the recommendations and make its version to the United Nations by June. Although the government’s proposal will have legal binding force, it is expected to set the tone for the future course of the nation’s labor policy.

As a result, the business leaders risked the wrath of the progressive government and came out in force, issuing a point-by-point rebuttal on the commission’s recommendations.

The statement chided the commission for trying to deal with the issue of non-regular workers from an ideological point of view. ``It is an industrial issue and should be treated as one,’’ it said.

Regarding its call for the removal of the government’s direct intervention, they claimed that it should be preserved as tool to protect the general public from harms that result from strikes in the nation’s key industries such as power stations and transportation systems.

``If these recommendations were accepted, it would trigger a great confusion throughout society,’’ it said.
The five business associations signed on the joint statement. They were the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the Korea Federation of Small and Medium Businesses, the Korea International Trade Association and the Korea Employers Federation (KEF).

``If the government follows the NHRC proposals, the society will have to shoulder a huge economic burden,’’ FKI chairman Kang Shin-ho said. ``The most urgent task for the management is to create jobs through facility investments and try to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor,’’ KEF chairman Lee Su-young said.
Lee said, however, that their statement didn’t target the government or President Roh Moo-hyun.

The commission’s action plan also called on the government to recognize conscientious objectors and allow teachers and public servants to participate in political activities.

The business community took issue with these recommendations, saying, ``These recommendations, if implemented, would shake the national security to its foundation.’’

During its FKI executives meeting last week, CEOs reached consensus that the business community should more aggressively have its voice heard about social issues as well as economic issues.
However, sources say that the business leaders’ bold action had more to do with an effort to gain an upper hand in their wage negotiations that come in spring or push for their agenda to be reflected in the nation’s roadmap on labor affairs to be finalized soon.

Meanwhile, the government said that Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan will host a meeting with senior officials to deal with the business community’s grievances. ``There are elements that need reconsideration in the commission’s recommendation,’’ a government official said.

Monday, January 09, 2006

More WTO follow-up

Just a quick post for today: The KCTU is preparing to send up to 1000 protestors to Hong Kong to demand the release of the 11 South Korean protestors still in jail there. Read more about it in the Choson here and Joongang Daily here. Here's an interview and some audio from a WTO protestor, Joel Wainwright, who was with the Korean contingent there in December, it's worth a listen.

Update -- Seems that all but three of the WTO protestors have been released. Here's is an article on who they are from the HK Standard. Meanwhile, Kotaji has some links to some commentary on the issue from the blogosphere and beyond.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New Year Labour Update

Here's a brief on some changes to Korean labour relations for this year. Most of are somewhat minor adjustments except for the legalization of civil service unions (something that has been promised since 1997) which will be provide with rights to collectively bargain, but not to strike. The big issue of irregular work expansion seems shelved for the moment but will come up again in the spring. Seems like they couldn't find time to pass it after the large protests on the issue last month as well as the controversy stemming from rice market policy that passed and the deaths of two demonstrators. Thus, the big news here is a series of resignations. National Police Commisioner Huh Joon-young has resigned as has Labour Minister Kim Dae Hwan resigned. The labour movement had been calling for his resignation since last spring in the wake of severe measure taken against irregular worker's strikes.

A longer story on the Migrant's Trade Union recently appeared in the Korea Times which is worth a read to bring readers up to date on the MTU's campaigns. Migrant activism has been increasing again recently following on the footheels of the 'Masok incident' in mid-October when migrants and locals stopped a crackdown by surrounding immigration buses for 9 hours and negotiating the release of a number of the detained migrants (see video and pics). The Times article also discusses the sit-in at the KNHRC that we covered in December.

Devon wrote a detailed description of the Masok incident over at her blog:
Immigration pulls into Maseok [on the afternoon of October 19] to round up as many illegal folk as they can get their hands on. They had successfully herded 31 people onto the bus when something miraculous happened: The residents and business owners in Maseok surrounded the bus and refused to let Immigration take the workers away. It turned into a 10 hour standoff. Sometime during the 10th hour, while MTU folks were furiously calling solidarity groups to come to Maseok and join the fight against Immigration, something else, that wasn't so miraculous, happened: The local leader of a group called JCMK, a reverend, stepped up and started negotiating with Immigration. In the end, Immigration drove the bus, all 31 migrants aboard, straight to Hwaseong Detention Center with the promise that they'd all be let go. Well, who the hell ever trusts the government, anyhow? I mean, really- when have they ever lived up to a promise like that? Any government in any country? So as any of us might have predicted, there was a catch: 22 of the 31 were out of detention by Thursday- with conditions. They were bonded, meaning they had to pay the government 500,000 won (about $500) as a sort of security deposit, and they had to buy a plane ticket out of the country with the promise to leave in no more than 14 days. Immigration threatened to sanction the employers in Maseok if all of the conditions weren't met to their satisfaction. The other 9 workers will be deported immediately because they don't have valid passports.

I guess some people might view this as a victory. After all, the 22 people who were let out of detention have most certainly left Maseok to seek work in some other little industrial zone in Nowhere, Korea- out of the view of immigration- at least for a little while. But I am personally a bit miffed at the outcome. Here's why: the JCMK reverend negotiated with the full faith of the local community without actually consulting folks, and then convinced everyone that it would be okay, it's just really important to follow the law. Who knows, maybe people were prepared to hang out there for 24 hours, or 24 days until their demands were met. Perhaps, in this spontaneous spark of community solidarity, a really meaningful fight could've been waged against the unfair employment laws and really brought immigration policy into focus for the rest of Korea. This little bitty town in the middle of nowhere could've been the push the migrant's needed to gain a little respect in their fight for equality. It is completely possible that every single one of those workers could've been freed without ever having gone to the detention center in the first place. But they weren't.

And so this is what brings me to Maseok: I wanted to see for myself what was going on there. Right now, it is a very delicate political situation for MTU. They need to organize to get rid of the unfair immigration law called EPS, but for the moment, the reverend is a hero in Maseok. He apparently single-handedly freed 22 workers while, in his view, MTU stood by impotently. This reverend, as it turns out, also happens to fully support EPS, which has resulted in thousands upon thousands arrests and deportations since it's implementation, as well as has increased the number of people who work illegally in Korea. It's a crime the way the Korean government hunts down workers they need to keep communities like Maseok thriving- only to bring more workers in the country who, under this law, will inevitably become illegal in the not so distant future.

So MTU is in a bit of a bind. They need to have a strong presence in Maseok without being too strong. They need to organize without pissing off the JCMK, which also in some ways holds the workers and business community hostage because of their clout with politicians. The message from JCMK is: We'll help you, but it's going to be our way and we might not actually ask you about what you really want or need because without us, you couldn't do it. Which isn't actually true, but they've been effective at getting that message across. Isn't the road to hell paved with good intentions?

Campaign to release remaining WTO prisoners

Here's an appeal from an international campaign to free the remaining WTO protestors that came out today. I'll reprint it in full:

International Campaign for the Immediate Release of WTO Political Prisoners
(Sponsoring organizations: Korean Struggle Mission---Korean Confederationof Trade Unions, Korean Peasants League, and Korean Catholic FarmersAssociation---Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Hong Kong People’sAlliance, and Via Campesina)

During the 6th World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference that washeld in Hong Kong from December 13 to 18, 2005, thousands of participantsrepresenting trade unions and labor rights groups, peasant’s, civil society, migrant rights, and women’s organizations, and social movement organizations participated in a series of peaceful protests, rallies, andother actions to protest the WTO and its impact on workers, farmers, and people all around the world, specifically in developing countries.On the eve of the conclusion of the WTO Ministerial meetings (December17), these groups realized that despite their many efforts, to express their concerns and have their voices heard, the so-called representativesof the people continuously refused to listen.
Government officials and trade analysts had cloistered themselves in the convention center pushing forward to achieve some sort of consensus and finalize an agreement that would once again clearly favor developed countries, fail to alleviate poverty, and further increase the gap between the rich and poor.As rally participants attempted to make their way to the convention center, the Hong Kong police forcibly blocked them. Knowing that this could be their last chance, the participants decided to move forward. Although the Hong Kong police attempted to disperse the crowd, the participants were desperate to enter the convention site. They became increasingly frustrated by the efforts of the Hong Kong police to stop and silence them and as a result a confrontation ensued between the participants and the Hong Kong police.

Hong Kong Police Violations Against Demonstrators
During this confrontation the police used excessive force, pepper spray, tear gas, and more importantly anti-riot beanbags (rubber bullets) to stopthe participants. It was recently revealed that the Hong Kong police had never used beanbag bullets on demonstrators in Hong Kong, and that theyare only intended to be used against rioters. It should be noted that theparticipants in no way started a riot nor was it their intention to do so. The intentions of their actions were peacefully motivated and thus, the response of the police in no way warranted such drastic actions. As a consequence many were injured during the confrontation.Little past midnight on December 18, the Hong Kong police surrounded theprotestors and refused to let anyone to either enter or leave the cordonedarea. Starting at 2:30 am, the police declared that everyone wasparticipating and an “unlawful assembly” and began to systematicallyarrest more than 1,300 participants. Since the police did not have sufficient vans to transfer the participants, it took them over ten hoursto arrest everyone and incarcerate them in 14 detention centers acrossHong Kong. During the arresting and detention process a number were beaten by thepolice, hundreds were forced to be handcuffed in plastic cable wires behind their backs for more than three hours waiting to be processed bythe police at the detention centers, and in certain cases, in the earlystages of the detention, women were strip searched. A large number ofdetainees were held for 48 hours, the legal time frame for the Hong Kongpolice to either charge those arrested or release them. During this timemany participants, in some cases 20 people together, were forcibly crampedinto 3x3 cells with no blanket to cover the cold cement floors.

14 WTO Political Prisoners
In the end, the Hong Kong government released all of the participantsexcept 14 individuals who they deemed to be the ringleaders and thus responsible for damages to public property and injuries suffered by the Hong Kong police. Of the fourteen arrested, nine are South Korean farmers, two are members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), one is a homeless rights activist in Japan, one is a Taiwanese student, and one is mainland Chinese. Although the 14 WTO Political Prisoners are out on bail, twelve of the defendants (eleven Korean and one Japanese) are currently living in a local church due to the generosity ofthe Hong Kong Catholic Bishop, awaiting their trial. It should be noted that this is the first time that foreign nationals have been charged and are undergoing a formal trial procedure for participating in actions against the WTO.

Hunger Strike Launched by the WTO Political Prisoners
12 of the 14 WTO Political Prisoners have decided to launch an indefinite hunger strike starting January 5 to not only highlight the injustice oftheir case, but more importantly highlight the reason for them coming toHong Kong---to protest against the WTO. Their fight was not with thepeople of Hong Kong, but with the undemocratic institution of the WTO andthe free trade policies implement by the WTO without any real consultation with workers and farmers.

Call for Action
We are calling for the international community to express your outrage tothe Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong police by calling for the immediate release of the 14 WTO political prisoners. We are asking individuals and organizations to participate in a variety of activitiesthat we are launching in conjunction with the Hunger Strike by the WTO Political Prisoners.


1.International Support Letter Writing CampaignWrite to Donald Tsang calling for the immediate release of the 14 WTOPolitical Prisoners. Please see the enclosed sample letter. Send copiesof all letters to the International Committee for the Immediate Release ofthe WTO political prisoners at

2.Coordinate an International Day of ActionWe are calling for interested organizations and individuals to coordinatea protest rally in front of the Chinese Embassy on Monday, January 9, 2006at 12:00 pm. In addition to the rally, we urge people to meet withembassy officials calling for the immediate release of the 14 WTOPolitical PrisonersPlease send all information of international day of actions and

3.Participate in an Internal Solidarity Mission to Hong Kong.We are coordinating an international delegation consisting of key leadersfrom trade unions, human rights groups, civil society organizations, peasant’s groups, and other social movements to participate in asolidarity mission to Hong Kong. The program will start with a localrally coordinated by Hong Kong support groups on January 8, participatingin the international day of action and press conference on January 9,visiting key members within the Hong Kong government and the prosecutionon January 10 and ending with observing the pre-trial hearing scheduled for January 11. For more information about the International Solidarity Mission, pleasecontact Elizabeth Tang. of the HKCTU at 852-9091-9088 and Jin Sook Lee ofthe KCTU at 852-6733-83954.

4.Solidarity Hunger Strike We are calling for individuals and organizations to conduct a solidarityhunger strike for either one meal or one day anytime between January 5 to11, 2006.Please send all information of solidarity hunger strike and

5.Financial SupportWe appeal for financial support towards the expenses that the detaineeshave incurred as a result of the detention. Donations can be sent to HKBS001-393248-001 or by cheques payable to Student Christian Movement of HongKong. Please send cheques to Mr. Chan Chiu Wai at 7/F Wing Wong Building557-559 Nathan Road Kowloon, Hong Kong. Be sure to note on the cheque that the donation is "support for arrested WTO protestors".

Sample Letter

Mr. Donald Tsang
Chief Executive
Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong People's Republic of China
Via fax: 852-2509-0577 or Via e-mail
January 4, 2006
Dear Chief Executive Tsang:
On behalf of ________, I am writing to express our deep concerns about thearrest of 14 protestors from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and mainlandChina, who are facing charges of unlawful assembly for the events thattranspired on the December 17, 2005 near the vicinity of the 6th WorldTrade Organization’s Ministerial Conference site in Hong Kong.The 14 protestors charged were among more than 1,300 people arrested onthe night of December 17 questioning the on-going negotiations within theconference site, which would undoubtedly be detrimental to the livelihoodof farmers, workers, and people around the world. The protestors wereattempting to voice their frustration and desperation at yet another roundof the WTO Ministerial conference that yielded no measures to alleviatepoverty or to address their concerns.Although all fourteen are released on bail, it is our understanding thatthe Hong Kong government has formally charged them with “unlawfulassembly” and they are considering adding new charges. We are veryconcerned by the actions of the Hong Kong government and the police. Thus, we strongly call for the immediate release of the 14 protestors sothat they can return home to their families.We must also voice our serious concerns at the uncalled for and excessiveuse of force by the Hong Kong Police during the night of the 17th. Manywere injured, and electric shock batons were used, while reports of‘beanbags pellets’ being fired upon have also been confirmed. We havebeen told that there were numerous instances of human rights violationsduring the process of detaining over 1,300 protestors that have beendocumented by human rights organizations. We urge that an impartial andthorough inquiry into the human rights violations and the violence used onthe part of the Hong Kong police be pursued.As concerned __________ regarding this matter, we would like to point outthat a failure to properly investigate and rectify human rights violationswould reflect negatively on the human rights standards of the SpecialAdministrative Region of Hong Kong. A harsh sentence for the 14 wouldalso put into question the democratic tolerance of the region, taking intoaccount that no foreigners have been arrested in previous cases of similardemonstrations.We will continue to monitor closely the proceedings regarding the 14protestors and again stress our call for the immediate release of the 14activists.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.Sincerely,(list of signatories)

CC: Pascal Lamy Fax: 41-22-731-42-06 or

Monday, January 02, 2006

back from vacation

In case anyone was wondering, the lack of posts lately was because I was away from reliable internet access while on Christmas break. To bring readers up to date, there are a few stories we'll be posting shortly on WTO follow-up, changes in Korean labour relations, and migrant labour issues... Check back soon