Monday, May 22, 2006

High and Low

It's been a while since I've done some serious posting on this blog, mainly as I've been settling in to South Korea to do my doctoral research (yes, I do have a life outside of the blogosphere). At any rate, with jet lag and other adjustments having been made I'm only now able to begin contemplating issues and posting information. Thus, I have to apologize for all the reprints as of late, I was starting to feel like the Korea Herald's newswire. Then again, this blog is still largely a current affairs/events type blog, so what can you do?

Although I try to make my posts more newsy, the following are some general points on the issue of irregular labour which we've been covering quite a lot over the past year.

A while back while I was doing some research on the net on the non-regular workers bill I came across two interesting articles in the Korea times about the opposition of employer's groups to the upcoming bill on irregular employment. As you know that non-regular workers bill has been consecutively delayed due to opposition from all sides. The bill will basically put into law much of the flexibilization that already exists and pervades Korean society and to which labour are, justly, opposed and who feel the chance will have been missed to create new foundations for equitable rights and status for all workers. Albeit the bill is designed to iron out inequalities in some areas of contingent work, by putting minimums on the amount of time an employee can work temporarily in one workplace, but, without a general principle of 'equal pay for equal work' included in the bill it is hard to figure out how to prevent institutionalizing a dual labour market structure whereby some workers enjoy solid benefits and others are left precarious, even while doing the same job. By most indicators, inequality -- which is quite easily to see just by looking at the contrasts in housing type, mostly between middle class apartments and poorer houses or villas, in and around Seoul -- continues to expand, the topic of recent and fairly well done piece in the Korea times.

Now, the government may argue that it will pick up the slack by offering benefits in key areas of social security in return for the consent of labour groups to flexibilization, however, government policymakers aside, the surprise here is that private capital also seems to be against the formalization of flexibility and would prefer a business as usual approach, at least from what I can gander from the press. Business as usual here would mean that the contingent status of perhaps millions of workers would remain in a legal loophole, in other words, the business community has no coherent policy except to ignore the laws that currently exist and advocate that new laws not be created, thus relegating, or legally abandoning, the situation of contingent workers to very grey legal status. Seems the cost of having to pay those workers who have worked at particular firms full time for multiple years the full pay they deserve -- ie regularizing their employment status as a trade off for greater concessions for flexibility in the future and in other segments of the economy -- is not even viewed as preferable.

Employers actually threatened a "strike by capital" against the bill last February, claiming that they would continue to move overseas if the government continued to push the bill. Though such threats are normally kept in the back room, it seems that Korean employers were fine with printing this in the Korea Times which makes one wonder a bit how much they care about their public image or the role they want to be seen as playing in Korea's often very nationalist political economy. Or perhaps, the reason why the political economy is not seen as very nationalist these days may also have to do with the ways in the which the government is able to regulate its economy's financial structure. In other words, perhaps changes have been made that create less incentive for corporations to want to want to obey labour law once the stick of financial discipline has been removed. But this too, remains to be seen completely, and I myself, am left guessing at exactly where state capability or coherent political power in this area lies (perhaps a topic for further research).

Perhaps these are the beginning of the days when the international of capital will have to be met with a more coherent internationalization of labour, but then again, these trends are nothing new, segyehwa (or globalization) has been used quite a lot in introducing new plans and policies (remember the hub of Asia), but this form of internationalization does not normally follow a rhetoric of exit, it is more about the entry of capital. What is new, perhaps, is the way in which they being used in the public sphere as a threat of abandonment. Or maybe not, but if so, I'd like to see more examples.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Fearing another Hong Kong?

Here's an intesting story from today's Korea times. If you followed our previous posts on the Hong Kong protests in December, you'll see that the Korean government has a history of being anxious about its protestors travelling. I'm still settling down into my research role here but I'll try to provide more analysis on this issue and more in the coming weeks. -J

Activists Urged to Scrap Anti-FTA Rally in US
By Jung Sung-ki

Staff Reporter

The government on Friday urged the country’s labor organizations not to stage a rally in the United States against a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the two

In a joint statement issued by five cabinet
ministers concerned with the FTA, the government denounced plans by
labor groups to dispatch a group of protesters to America.

The ministers said it would seriously damage the country’s international reputation and relations between the two allies.

They said they were also concerned that the
anti-FTA protest could cause inconvenience to all Korean people as it
may have a negative effect on the Seoul’s efforts to negotiate a
visa waiver program with Washington.

``We sincerely call on the organizations
preparing the protest rally to immediately scrap the plan, which is
damaging our national image and causing concern among the
public,’’ said the statement read by Minister of Foreign
Affairs and Trade Ban Ki-moon.

Other signatories were Deputy Prime
Minister-Minister of Finance and Economy Han Duck-soo, Justice Minister
Chun Jung-bae, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Park Hoong-soo and
Labor Minister Lee Sang-soo.

``We urge the groups to express their position
and views about the FTA negotiations through peaceful and legitimate
processes,’’ Ban said.

The statement came as a group of South Korean
activists are planning to stage a rally protesting the scheduled
Korea-U.S. FTA meeting in Washington next month.

The group consists of members of various labor
and farmers' organizations, including the progressive Korean
Confederation of Trade Unions and the Coalition of Farmers'
Association, which sent a group of protesters to Hong Kong last
December to protest against a meeting of World Trade Organization (WTO)

The statement said it is
``undesirable’’ for a handful of interest groups to
entirely oppose a crucial trade agreement for the future growth of the
country’s economy just because the pact is expected to create a
few problems.

``Free trade agreements are fast becoming a
global trend that no one can resist. The government has been working to
sign free trade agreements (with other nations) to prepare for the
changing global circumstances and to further advance our products in
the world market,’’ it said.

The statement said further liberalization, or an
FTA with the United States, was inevitable for South Korea, which
depends on foreign countries for more than 70 percent of its economy
and other affairs.

More than 180 FTAs have been signed between
countries worldwide and over 50 percent of global trade is now
conducted between nations relying on such trade agreements, officials

Seoul and Washington jointly announced the start
of negotiations for an FTA in February, while setting the deadline for
the negotiations as June 2007. The first round of talks is to be held
next month.

In a related development, the government has
requested Washington's cooperation and leniency regarding the South
Korean protesters.

Washington replied that it will try to explain
U.S. law on street rallies to the South Koreans and that the United
States guarantees protest rallies as long as they are peaceful, said
Chung Dal-ho, ambassador for overseas and Korean affairs at the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Chung said the government cannot and does not
wish to block peaceful rallies by South Koreans in other countries, but
said the ministers' joint statement is a ``sincere
request’’ for the organization to stop the plan because its
rally is highly likely to become violent considering its past record.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


I'm in the middle of a move right now, so I have not had much time to update recently. Below is a reprint from the Donga on recent mayday protests. By the end of this week I should by in SK so look forward to some more detailed and original updates soon. I've also recently switched to a mac so there may be some glitches for a bit (a perhaps a move to a different blog provider) but we'll see how that goes... --J

Unions Celebrate May Day With Protests

MAY 02, 2006 03:00
by Eun-Woo Lee (

The Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) held various events and gatherings yesterday, marking the 116th Labor Day.

The KCTU hosted an event to commemorate World Labor Day, arguing for the abolition of the bill on irregular workers and a roadmap for advancing laws and systems on labor-management relations and free medical service and education, and against a Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The event started at 3:00 p.m. in Seoul Plaza in front of Seoul City Hall with more than 10,000 people in attendance.

The KCTU announced in the event, “Neo-liberalism is threatening workers’ existences, and we should set up strong battle lines to fight against it.”

Prior to the gathering, each union held preliminary rallies in Cheonggye Plaza and Seoul Station Plaza in the morning.

For its part, the FKTU hosted a marathon commemorating the Labor Day jointly with Sohn Ki-jeong Foundation. The marathon started in Jamsil Stadium, Seoul at 10:00 a.m.

The sporting event, which marked the 60th anniversary of the FKTU’s establishment and the 70th anniversary of Sohn’s winning a gold medal in the marathon in the Berlin Olympics, attracted about 12,000 workers and citizens.

The two organizations also held events celebrating Labor Day in other major cities, including Incheon, Busan, Daegu and Gwangju.

Meanwhile, Labor Minister Lee Sang-soo said in an interview with a radio program on May 1, “If the passage of the bill on irregular workers is delayed, measures for (labor) reform will also be delayed.”

The bill was expected to pass the National Assembly in April, but its passage is being delayed due to conflicts between the ruling and the opposition parties over the amendment for the private schools law and the opposition from the Millennium Democratic Party.