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?

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