Monday, October 30, 2006

Critical Constellations -- Interlocals

I've recently become involved with a few other projects that I thought I would promote on this site. One is the Hong Kong based site,, a site which is attempting to connect english/non-english news on grassroots and inter-local issues in the region through original dialogues, stories and translations. It's only been up for a few months but is expanding quickly.

The other site is a blog for the institute for the study of democracy and social movements here in Seoul (where I am a visiting researcher), so far it is oriented towards promoting and circulation some of the wealth of english material produced each year by Korean academics and other intellectuals engaged with critical social movement issues. Unlike Interlocals, we're off to a slow start, but a start nonetheless, so please check us out. I've tentatively called the project critical constellations, as a mock-up description of what, to an extent, social movements are, constellations of multiple actors and expressions organized in often fluid networks, all striving to identify and inflect important social issues in a critical manner.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

November 15: International Solidarity

Here's the link to a call for a day of international solidarity with Korean workers organized by the Building and Wood Worker's International. This event in particular focuses on the struggles of Korean construction workers, whose union comprises both regular and irregular workers, who have faced a intense summer of harrassment and arrest, especially after the strike in Pohang in August which was covered here (you can search our August archives for more). This was also the strike in which Ha Joong Gun died from injuries inflicted by the riot police. Seems that there will be protests and pickets in front of Korean embassies world wide.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

(Metal) shield to the head

FTA Protest Continue

Here's the link to a report from the Hankyoreh about the continuing protests against the FTA. Seems twelve protestors were injured yesterday. The TV news showed some protestors being hit in the head with metal shields. Seems to be the tactic of choice for Korean riot police, a tactic which has claimed three lives in the last year. We wrote about this last August, so it goes.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Sunshine and Rain

There was a isolated wind and rain storm today, in Kangwondo, Korea, a province that stretches both sides of the border and is home to two of the most scenic mountain parks in North and South: Kumgang (diamond) and Sorak (snowy crag) mountains. Coincidently, it is the Kumgang mountain tours to North Korea that the US asked the South to discontinue during Condoleeza Rice' s recent trip. Since the test the sunshine policy of Kim Dae Jung and successive regimes has come under fire a bit, and in something of a straw man type manner, I should add. In response, however, Kim Dae Jung has been out defending his policy (in many ways, the problem was not too much but too little sunshine, in my opinion). Here's a story on that from the Hankyoreh.

It was sunny down south in Jeju today, where the fourth round of Korea-US FTA talks are beginning. From this evenings television news here, it seems that 15-20 000 where out protesting, and at least several dozen tried to make it to the resort site where the conference is being held in order to protest. To do so the attempted to swim across a lagoon there, in repeat of the farmer protest in Hong Kong against the WTO last year, when 300+ Korean farmers braved the december water to make their point. I've seen no account of the swim in English as of yet but here is a quick story on the protests from monstersandcritics, and a more in depth look from the Hankyoreh.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Migrant Workers Film Festival

I should have posted on this sooner, but MWTV and other groups have a sponsored a travelling film festival this month, the MWFF. I just went to one of the Seoul nights this week, but there are still nights in Bucheon and other cities around the country this month. There is an interesting range of films here about migrant workers, and not solely in Korea but in other countries around the pacific, from Taiwan, to Canada and Malaysia. Check out their program (in english and other languages) at their website (

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Conflict Escalating

Here's my backgrounder on what's been going with the KGEU, feel free to use it for progressive purposes... Should be up over at interlocals later today.

Labour conflict escalating in South Korea

Following an ILO regional meeting in Busan, South Korea, labour relations have soured in that country over the month of September with a large government offensive against the 140,000 member Korean Government Employee’s Union, and a back door agreement with a government-friendly union selectively advancing segments of the government’s labour reform roadmap which many fear will pave the way for further expansion of irregular work on the peninsula.

Offensive against the KGEU

Over the last month the Korean government has waged an aggressive crackdown against the Korean Government Employee's Union (KGEU), forcibly closing down 121 of 251 KGEU chapter offices nationwide -- literally welding them shut with metal bars and iron plating -- and arresting, as of October 10th, over 100 members of the KGEU and other organizations in solidarity with them.

The origins of this struggle are related to the slow consolidation of public sector labour unions in the post-dictatorship era. Korea has been under continuing pressure from local and international organizations to recognize its public sector trade unions. Though many of these unions have existed for some time, the Korean government has been taking the slow road to legally recognizing them. The Korean Teacher's Union was only recognized in 1999, and there is a large ‘public servants’ union (employee's in sectors such as railroads and transportation), but the government has still to recognize Korea's large government employee's union (KGEU), which has been underground for quite sometime.

In many ways, the cause of this crisis is a constitutional matter. As Article 33 of the Korean constitution states:

Article 33 [Unions]

(1) To enhance working conditions, workers have the right to independent association, collective bargaining, and collective action.
(2) Only those public officials who are designated by law, have the right to association, collective bargaining, and collective action.
(3) The right to collective action of workers employed by important defense industries may be either restricted or denied under the conditions as prescribed by law.

As the KGEU cannot ‘legally’ exercise these rights without legal recognition, the Korean government have refused to recognize them until the union agrees to certain limitations on their rights: basically giving up the right to strike and dis-allowing what it terms ‘higher’ public officials (basically half of the KGEU’s 140,000 members) from joining the union. The union refused to agree, in principle, with the limitation of the three basic labour rights as recognized in the Korean constitution. Which seems reasonable, as the government’s offer here is on constitutionally shaky grounds. Nonetheless, the Korean governments’ response to the union in its short history have been severe.

Since it was founded in 2002, almost all KGEU public meetings, assemblies, workshops, or press conferences have become sites of police violence and, frankly, unbelievable resistance, with union members, at times, literally keeping the riot police at bay while carrying out important votes. Nonetheless, the KGEU has organized strikes and weathered the persecution, even growing in size. For its part, the Korean government has slowly ratcheted up the pressure, declaring a special law on the rights of government employees forbidding them from bargaining and taking collective action, including penal provisions for those who disobey. The law, passed in 2002, included a grace period which ended in 2006. Since then the oppression has only escalated.

Staff elections of the KGEU were blockaded in January of this year, and in February ministers from the Ministries of Justice, Government and Home Affairs, and Labour issued a joint statement and countermeasures against the KGEU which was followed in March with instructions for the voluntary withdrawal of all union members and notification of all cases of non-compliance so that legal action may be taken. Between March and September the government kept up its pressure by forcing local governments to report on the actions of KGEU members and submit the names of members involved actions.

In September, at an ILO regional meeting in Busan, South Korea, the ILO criticized the Korean government for denying public servants their basic labour rights, and delegates further denounced the intervention into the matter by the Ministry of Government and Home and Affairs and Minissty of Justice, saying that these ministries have no right to intervene in labour conflict and that collective agreements must be made by bargaining between the union and employer’s, not third parties. Nonetheless, the current crackdown against the KGEU began just days after the ILO Busan conference ended, which is ironic mostly because the Korean government had hosted the conference to showcase improvements to labour relations in the country.

Labour relations worsening

What this says about the overall conditions of labour rights and democracy on the Korean peninsula is not encouraging. September’s crackdown against the KGEU was accompanied by the signing of tripartite agreement between the government friendly (or state-corporatist) union, the Federation of Korean Industries (FKTU), business, and government. The agreement, signed without the consent or participation of the larger Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) delays important clauses on union pluralism and paves the way for expanded irregularization of employment. This makes a mockery not only of the concept of tripartite negotiation between labour, management, and government endorsed by the ILO – 2.5-ism may be a better term to describe its current Korean embodiment – it also sets a dangerous precedent for distinctively anti-democratic labour relations to come, and has thus been criticized by a wide segment of Korean civil society, including legal and constitutional experts.

The KCTU, meanwhile, has promised more strikes and industrial action against the roadmap bill and ongoing union repression in November.

2006 Copyleft

Monday, October 09, 2006

Pyeongtaek, KGEU

Looking back at some of the events from the last month here is a good collection of stories and pics on the raids against the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU) from CINA. Kotaji also has some comments and the draft of letter of solidary from a meeting of European social movements recently gathered in Brussels.

Days in Daechuri also has its own article on the large rally against the removal of villagers in Pyeontaek that took place in front of city hall on Sept 24. They also have links to other stories on the rally as well as pics.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

back at it: KGEU, Labour Roadmap, Posco workers sued

My apologies to avid readers for the lack of posts over the last month. I'm back at it now and will be ramping up the posts in the coming weeks. In case you haven't heard or read about them, there are a few big stories from the past month that need some coverage.

Attacks on the KGEU

The first is the government offensive against the Korean Government Employee's Union, a union of civil servants that doesn't agree with the limitations on their labour rights that the government is forcing them to accept in order to have legal recognition. Thus, this union is 'illegal' for the time being and is now undergoing some severe repression. It's important to mention here that it is not just the KGEU that doesn't agree with these limitations but members of the ILO as well, who have criticized the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs for their intervention in labour relations in such a way. Here's the most recent press release from the union, along with a chronology of this month's attacks on KGEU offices everywhere, attacks which are continuing. The KGEU has 140 offices nationwide, over 81 have been shut down as of Sept 23. You can also find the online campaign on the KGEU site.

Labour Relations Road Map

The other major story, and one that has flown slightly under the radar, is the tentative tripartite (really 2.5-ite) agreement between the FKTU, Business, and Government, on the labour relations road map. Basically, they have agreed to postpone the two contentious issues (trade union pluralism, and pay for full-time labour organizers) for three years -- basically this is a setback for union democracy within and between workplaces. This also means that other aspects of the bill may move forward quite quick: expansion of irregular work, etc., without full trade union participation. The FKTU has also begun campaigning for foreign investment by advertising the agreement it strung together with business and government withouth any consent or participation for the larger KCTU. 2 and half-ism seems to have replaced tripartitism, indeed. If some of the other elements of the roadmap are passed, it seems that we will be seeing more and more illegal strikes as the venues for legal trade unionism is made smaller and smaller and people struggle to protect themselves. So far the governements reaction to this has been punitive. For example, it seems that the irregular workers who struck at POSCO in August are being sued for 1.7 million (US), a move which can only lead to more violence if this money is garnished from workers private savings as it has in the past.

The KCTU is promising strikes against the legislation in November, we'll keep you posted...