Monday, March 27, 2006

Spring Labour Struggle

An update from Koilaf on some upcoming labour issues.

Labor unions have threatened to launch an all-out struggle against the government and management next month over thorny labor issues, including an irregular workers bill and wage hikes.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) intends to call a general strike next week attempting to block the passage of the controversial bill during a plenary session at the National Assembly.

The country’s largest umbrella labor group, representing more than 800,000 workers, staged large-scale rallies earlier this month after the bill was approved by the Assembly’s environment and labor committee.

Relations between government, management and labor are expected to worsen further as rail and subway workers have also vowed to strike again unless management accepts their demands for better working conditions and greater labor rights.

Public transport workers staged a four-day walkout earlier this month, disrupting the nation’s transportation services, and causing public inconvenience. They returned to work, yielding to negative public sentiment and a tough police crackdown.

The unions are also drifting toward a head-on clash with management, over demands for wage rises and negotiations on reinstatement of dismissed union representatives.


The KCTU is expected to begin a 10-day strike on April 3, to urge the Assembly not to pass the non-regular workers bill, which it claims would increase the number of temporary workers.

They have also called on the government to revise its labor policy to be more worker-friendly and stop its Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations with the United States. They argue an FTA with the U.S. would further aggravate the plight of farmers and irregular workers.

The Korea Rail Workers Union has also decided to, again, take collective action, saying the state-run Korea Railroad (Korail) has been indifferent to their demands, including reinstating fired workers and converting attendants of the Korea Train Express into regular workers.

The strike by unionized Korail workers is feared to disrupt passenger and freight services across the country for another time, forcing people to find alternative transport and causing financial loss to rail-reliant companies.

Also, shuttle bus workers in Seoul and Kyonggi Province plan to strike next month as they have failed to reach an agreement with management over wage increase.

Business organizations and labor unions are on collision course as they differ widely over various contentious labor issues.

The Korea Employers Federation (KEF) has asked its member companies not to pay labor union leaders from next year.

Employers have so far paid union leaders’ salaries but, under a new law, they will be ineligible for wages from their companies from 2007.

The KEF has also said it would not allow the unions a say in management, and it is solely up to management whether to hire, and how many non-regular workers they want to hire.

But the KCTU and another umbrella labor group, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), said they would stage an all-out struggle against employers, saying management’s stance on labor is unacceptable.

Management and labor also widely differ over wage hikes this year.

The KEF suggested employers raise wages by about 2.6 percent, a sharp contrast to the 9.6 percent hike demanded by the FKTU.

The employers’ organization even asked companies, suffering from the appreciation of the Korean won against the U.S. dollar, and high oil prices, to freeze wages this year.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Restless Pyeongtaek

[Update (Mar 21'06) -- Here's the link to an Amnesty International report on the incident below.]

You may remember that a while ago we covered some of the protests against the expansion of the US army base in Pyeongtaek. We haven't posted much on this issue since then as we've been more focused with labour issues and haven't covered some of the other issues at hand. It seems that meanwhile as local culture of resistance has continued in Pyeongtaek, with activists and locals defending the villages of Daechuri and Doduri, and several ensuing confrontations with police and military as these forces attempt to seal off the contested land. As you may remember from our original post above and the many background links connected to it, the Yongsan base in Seoul is being relocated to Pyeongtaek and this partly what the uproar is about. There are many perspectives on the issues and I would encourage readers to do some background reading on them, but below I shall reprint a rather urgent message and two updates sent by the Daechuri English Media Collective describing the current state of confrontation.

The Daechuri collective connect the expansion to the Project For a New American Century (PNAC) and see as a larger part of the consolidation of American Military Hegemony in Northeast Asia in general and Korea in particular. This is a controversial interpretation which perhaps renders extreme geopolitical significance to a local issue that is indeed a little more complicated. Moving the Yongsan garrision out of Seoul seems to me to signal that the South Korean government increasing independance in foreign policy issues, at least regarding the North, however, this relative independence in policy issues regarding the north has entail some participation in US adventures in Iraq and thus speaks to more complicated and complicit geopolitics than simple American domination. These words of caution aside, the fight brewing in Pyeongtaek is sure to reverberate for some time, and speaks to some real issues of regional disparity, forced displacement, and issues of police violence -- all of which are complicated by both national and geopolitical dynamics but, in my opinion, not solely reducible to one or the other. Thus, it seems important to publicize these events, especially as the protestors own description of the events rarely make it into the international press. Below are the original messages from the Daechuri collective including today's update.

Autonomous Village Under Siege by Korean Troops Rhizome Collective // Daechuri English Media Collective
08 Mar 2006 17:06 GMT

On March 6th, 2006, South Korean military riot police began an attack on the autonomous village of Daechuri. For over four years, Daechuri and the nearby community of Doduri have defiantly resisted the siezure of their homes and fields for the expansion of an United States Army base. Barracaded inside the elementary school, rice farmers, elderly residents, and peace activists are holding out against sporadic, sometimes intense attacks by Korea's elite military police force. International support is needed to pressure the Korean government to halt its brutal assault. Utilizing tractors as road blocks, human shields chained to the school gates, and the courage of a people fighting for their homes and lives, they have, so far, resisted wave after wave of attacks by hundreds of military riot police.

Residents and peace activists have suffered beatings and arrests, while inside the school, activists upload news updates, video of the attacks, and make pleas for immediate aid. They are exhausted and dehydrated, and in need of reinforcements and supplies. International observers, journalists, and anyone with a phone or a computer can
take action now.The expansion of U.S. Army base Camp Humphreys (K-6) is part of the Global Repositioning Plan, first outlined by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) and later adopted as the Bush Administration's strategy for consolidating its military hegemony over Northeast Asia. Opposition to the expansion of the base has come from many diverse currents within Korean society. Apart from community displacement, many have also highlighted issues including the devastating environmental impact of US bases, the violent crimes committed by US troops stationed on the peninsula, the issue of human trafficking and forced prostitution which surrounds the bases, and the potential for a new arms race that could destabilize all of Northeast Asia. Future Updates: Antigizi SavePTfarmers savePTfarmers email Peoples Tribunal Sarangbang Anarclan See Also Video [1] [2] Portland Indymedia: Story Audio

Currently, Camp Humphreys occupies 3,734 acres. However, in December 2004 the Korean government pledged to give over an additional 2,851 acres for the base facilities. But this land is flat, rich farm land stretching as far as the horizon. With this new expansion, some 1,372 residents will be driven off their land. Many are elderly people in the 60s and 70s. Fifty years ago these communities lost their land as 2 foreign forces (first Japanese, then American) built and expanded the base. Now for the 3rd time they will experience being forced off their own land. The Korean Ministry of National Defence (MND), has publicly declared that it will make the houses unlivable and the land untillable. If anyone touches an empty house they will be fined. To prevent people from engaging in agriculture the water lines have been cut and barbed wire has been laid. Residents and Korean peace organizations have been fighting the proposed expansion through legal means since 2001, all the while being deceived and ignored by officials, which finally prompted them to take matters into their own hands. In Feb 2005, Nomads for Peace "Peace Wind" moved into the village and initiated a variety of supportive activities while living with the residents.

Last March, NGOs from all over Korea formed a Counter Measures Comittee to join with the residents of Pyongtaek in educational programs, publicity and solidarity actions. Eventually weary of the struggle, some villagers accepted the compensation money and left, others were intimidated into fleeing, but many farmers and their families refused to surrender their homes and livelihood to a foreign power's imperial ambitions. A national campaign formed, including a tractor driven "Peace Pilgrimage", as well as massive solidarity rallies. In November of '05, two Korean farmers died at the hands of riot police in Seoul. In December, 2005, the Land Expropriation Committee approved the "imminent domain" seizure of Daechuri, Doduri and the surrounding fields. The farmers' existence on their own land was now illegal. Outraged and dissillusioned with the corrupt beaurocracy of an indifferent government, in February, farmers marched to Pyeongtaek city hall and burned their "residency cards", renounced their Korean citizenship and declared Daechuri an autonomous region.

Within this rebel territory, a vibrant community has flourished. Artists, musicians, peace activists, and religious leaders have joined with the residents, repairing and occupying vacant houses, and creating a "Peace Village". Murals of hope and resistance have appeared on blank walls, flags and banners opposing the American base expansion and U.S. imperialsim hang throughout the town. Traditional, shamanistic "totem poles" were carved in order to chase out the evil spirits plaguing the farmers. Every day, for over 550 days, residents and visitors have gathered in the Peace Village for a candlelight vigil. Famous Korean entertainers have made appearances and popular musicians held concerts to highlight the cause and encourage the farmers to continue fighting. Faced with the greatest tragedy of their lives, the villagers and their supporters have created a community of inspirational beauty and powerThese peaceful farming communities are now being uprooted and brutalized due to American military expansion. Attacks against the village by Korean authorities will continue until the U.S. withdraws its proposal for base expansion. Only massive international solidarity can save this land.

Update 1
9:30am, March 15. Two backhoes begin gutting the rice paddies on the far side of the fields. Nearly one thousand riot police stand attentive at the edge of the field, armed with batons and shields. Thousands more are posted around the periphery of the village. An untold number wait at adjacent Camp Humphreys Army base, while hundreds monitor street intersections and key access points to the area, preventing any tractors or farming equipment to arrive for the March 17 spring cultivation. As the supporters realize that the destruction has already begun, they race down the long narrow concrete path that divides the vast fields. It snowed the past few days, and the paddies ar thick with mud.

Protestors immediately surround the machines, who halt their excavating so as not to crush anyone. Someone climbs on top of the giant arm and secures himself to it. Elderly women lie down in front of the massive treads while people attempt to get inside the cab of the backhoe. The crowd of people split in two to confront each machine. The riot police stand at the edge of the fields, motionless, awaiting orders. There is a scuffle between an agitator and a protestor, and they tumble into the eight foot pit carved from formerly fertile soil. Video and still cameras point in all directions, daring the police or plain-clothed thugs to commit an atrocity under the gaze of the "media." Unable to continue the digging, the machines stand idle as people surrounding them are shouting and crying. The residents of Daechuri have feared this moment for years, the day their land would be transformed into dead earth, a mere platform for the U.S. military to expand its operational base and recreational facilities. Suddenly, the backhoes begin moving again, but instead of continuing their excavation the backhoes begin refilling the pits with the dirt that they had just removed.

Elation passes through the crowd upon seeing these workers disobey their orders and follow their hearts. Then the military riot police move into action, marching around the section of the field, cutting off all sides. They occupy two bridges, to prevent any more protestors in the village from joining. For a while there is a stand off. An eighty-year-old woman feignts and is taken to the hospital. The police begin to arrest people. Many protestors resist and are beaten down. Elderly villagers hurl mud at the police. Some people on the edges of the field cut through parts of the fence and set small fires on the army base. The struggle continues for hours, with police surronding the backhoes now covered with activists, with neither side gaining or losing much ground. Before nightfall, the police backed off, the day had been won, the fields still exist. Overall, 40 people are arrested. Many are injured, with broken wrists and ankles. At least two are still hospitalized in serious condition. Injured, exhausted, and running low on supplies and reinforcements, the residents of Daechuri and supporters of the Peace Village fear what will come tomorrow. There is word that the police will attack the elementary school again, the headquarters for the Peace Village. They desparately need more people to help defend.

Update 2
March 16th
More than 40 arrested today, the situation is urgent!!
Today on march 15, the second attack by the korean government was made against the farmers in Pyeongtaek region.lots of people got injured by ploice brutality.6 people hospitalized; some of them had their wrist broken, strained ligament, injured backbone, etc..about 40 activists and residents were arrested resisting the government's destruction of the farmland.they are still in police custidy.we hope most of them can be released after 48 hours without charges.situation is very bad here.the government brought 5,000 riot police to attack the land this time, and we were seriously outnumbered.there were only at most 500 people to defend the is highly expected that the korean government continue its attack on the farmers and activists if you're reading this, please come to Daechuri and Doduri NOW!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

by way of update

Haven't had much time to update lately. But the strike is over and the temporary workers bill is still delayed. So, in some ways, the strike was successful. I'm reprinting a brief summary below. Kotaji, sharp as always, has also provided an updated post on the strike.

Korean Temp Worker Bills Blocked for Now

A general strike last week by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and a pro-labour panel of lawmakers working inside a plenary session of South Korea’s National Assembly blocked three bills regarding non-regular workers from reaching final approval.

The strikes, in which tens of thousands of workers took part, occurred on Tuesday and Thursday, 28 February and 2 March. (1 March was an official Korean holiday.) The lawmakers, primarily from the progressive Democratic Labor Party, took over a parliamentary session on 2 March to temporarily derail passage. The bills were approved by the Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee on 27 February, but action in the streets and inside the plenary session prevented final approval prior to the Assembly closing its session on 2 March.

The issue is certain to meet further review and more public protests when the Assembly reconvenes on 20 March in an extraordinary session. The proposed legislation would do little to improve conditions for temporary and agency workers, but instead would give employers’ the flexibility to use hundreds of thousands more non-permanent workers and laying them off prior to the end of a proposed two-year period after which they must be made permanent.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Follow-up to 'Death of a Farmer'

In the 'Birthday' post, the article about Jeon Yong-cheol's death was brought up, which reminded me that I'd found a number of articles that followed up on the deaths of the farmers, but hadn't gotten around to posting them. I decided to add them to the original post as updates, but thought I'd post them here as well. After the blame was put on the police for the deaths of two farmers due to injuries received in the Nov. 15 protest, the police chief was forced to resign and the police pressured to change how they acted. This led to protests by supporters of the police (and in the media) who blamed protesters for the violence. A government panel to promote peaceful protests was formed, and an anti-base protest which was carried on peacefully with restraint on both sides was lauded as, perhaps, the beginning of a new era. Though I'm not entirely certain it will last, it would seem the accusations and blame hurled at Korean protesters and riot police over the past few months may have led both sides to reflect upon their tactics.

Here's a timeline, from where the Jeon Yong-cheol article left off:

Dec. 16: The police finally admit the possibility that Jeon Yong-cheol died as the result of being hit by riot police at a farmers' protest.

Dec. 18: Hong Deok-pyo, a farmer injured during the November 15 Yeouido protest, dies of his injuries.

Dec. 26: The National Human Rights Commission concludes that Jeon Yong-cheol and Hong Deok-pyo died from injuries inflicted by riot police during the Nov. 15 rally.

Dec. 27: President Roh apologizes on television for the actions of the police, but also criticizes the violent actions of the protesters. Police Chief Huh Joon-young also apologizes, but refuses to voluntarily step down.

Dec. 28: Police Chief Huh is pressed to resign by members of Uri party and the DLP.

Dec. 29: Despite saying he would not, Police Chief Huh resigns, saying he did not want to "burden the administration".

Jan. 7 & 8: Families of riot police hold protests against violent protests.

January 15: A plan to have riot police wear name tags while on duty is announced by the National Police Agency. It draws a great deal of criticism before being withdrawn.

Jan. 19: A government panel is formed to promote peaceful rallies, saying a policy package is due in April.

Feb 12: A protest in Pyeongtaek against the relocation of US bases there is celebrated for being non-violent.

struggle against casualization and privatization not over yet

Some interesting developments in the struggle against the non-regular workers bill and other forms of Korean neoliberalism to report. Korean rail workers are on the second day of their strike in support of fired workers, pay equity and against privatization as part of a larger series of actions against the upcoming bill on the protection of non-regular workers (which is actually a bill to expand irregular work, according to most). Labour protests continue to delay the bill. Apparently members of the DLP have occupied a meeting room in the parliament building, and according to Kotaji, even some conservative politicians are having second thoughts. Meanwhile, workers have mounted a sit-in in front of the National Assembly as part of the KCTU's general strike against the bill.

More on this issue in the coming days...