Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Victory for MTU!

This just came in over the wires and over my cell phone from a friend at the MTU:
Court allows illegal aliens right to form union SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- A Seoul court on Thursday ruled in favor of foreign workers seeking to join a trade union despite their illegal status from overstaying visas.

In the first official recognition of the right of illegal migrants to association, the Seoul High Court dismissed a lower court ruling that said illegal migrant workers are not eligible to form a labor union.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

revisiting emergency measures

There has been a lot news in the past weeks about the work of the national truth commissions into some controversial court rulings from the dictatorship period. First there was the clearing of charges against those who were executed in the In-Hyuk Dang (or People's Revolutionary Party incident as it is known) case. This was national news, I saw Father Moon, who was an activist at this time and still is involved to this day (you can see him in Daechuri if you visit). More recently, there has been a number of stories on the any number of small court cases against teachers, residents, or just about anyone who denounced Park Chung Hee at home, abroad, or in school. At any rate, these stories and more have been closely followed by the Hankyoreh and I suggest reading these articles and more because they really show you what life was like under emergency measures for both political activists and ordinary people alike. You can read this story about the judges involved in these cases and follow the related links for the others.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Not your average fashion show

Back at the end of November I was fortunate to be invited to my first fashion show. It was perhaps one of the more unique experiences I've had in Korea, so I thought I would post about it here.

The show was put on by SPARK (Social Programme for Action and Research in Korea) and the fashion label Sudagongbang, which makes modern fashion with a neo-traditional flair. The clothes seem to be made using higher quality inputs, such as natural fabrics and dyes, than one normally finds in the suits and sporting goods made in the basement and attic textile mills in the area of Dongdaemun market. The style of these clothes seems to fit somewhere business attire and taking-it-easy kind of traditional dress: whatever one would call this in Korean -- it is less formal than traditional Hanbok, and with a gentler colour scheme, but could be worn out for social occasions if desired. I guess phrases like boutique-casual or indie-prep are good ways to describe these clothes, as they are neither your typical luxury goods dominated by logos and consumer fetishism but they are also certainly much more stylish than your typical everyday wear even though they look perfect for everyday use.

The most interesting thing about the show, however, was not simply the clothes but how it came to be organized. The clothes were made and modeled by the women who made them as well as by a number of prominent figures from Korean civil society. The participants from civil society included labour union activists from the largest and most militant trade union, the KCTU; ministers of labour, justice, and gender equality; members from each of the major political parties; popular entertainers from both the social movements and from the conventional pop music industry.

The women who made the clothes were all from Changshin-dong, and participants in the SPARK program founded and run by Chun Sunok. Changshin Dong is located near the Dongdaemun textile markets and is full of thousands of small attic and basement sweatshops. These women subcontract and run small independent workshops there. Most of them have worked in this industry since the original textile boom of the seventies. The work conditions and wages have not improved much since then either and safety and workplace hazards are still quite severe. The SPARK program is located in this area and provides after-school programs for the children in the neighbourhood as well as skills upgrading and counseling for many of the women workers in the neighbourhood.

Chun Sunok herself is the sister of the late Chun Tae-Il: a martyr of the modern South Korean labour movement who immolated himself in 1970 in protest of the harsh working conditions in the Dongdaemun peace market during the time of the military dictatorship. Chun Tae-Il's injunction to government and business 'observe the labour standards act' helped to trigger the democratic trade union movement as well as opposition to military rule. Both his sister and his mother would become seminal figures in these movements as well. More so, the legacy of Chun Tae-il is intimately bound up with the democracy movement, and his story is what unites many of those who appeared on stage during the fashion show. As sort of a deep historical co-ordinate of a point in time from which progress has been made through constant confrontation with different forms of power over the many years since then.

This brings us back to November's fashion show, in that it in some ways it speaks to the democratic struggle and to its expansion of social welfare, if not showcasing a new form of it in the Korean case. Obviously the story here connects both the Changshin-Dong women with the other participants at the show. The women themselves were the producers and the performers: they were empowered in the production process and also in the consumption of these clothes. There is something liberating about that. It was nice to see different body types on stage exhibiting an interesting kind of confidence: the kind of confidence of having struggled socially to overcome both personal and political (one could also add aesthetic) obstacles and having succeeded.

All the participants, in some way, draw part of their legitimacy on the legacy on Chun Tae-il and the quest to create a more just society. This legacy has a sort of legitimizing function for the struggles that currently animate Korean society and the fact that this legacy is recognized by a wide variety of actors both inside of the state, the parties, the movements, and even the private sector is something to be applauded, even though these groups have vastly different ways of approaching these issues. Honestly, seeing Lee Soo-Ho (pictured above), head of the KCTU, on the same stage as the labour minister and a member of the right wing party was shocking to many and speaks to the ability of the organizers to unite a very disparate crowd of participants.

The tension here is that, recently, forms of irregular work have expanded to the point that even the ministries estimate that some 52% of the workforce is irregularly employed. This has been because of the response to economic crisis and to liberalized private capital has been to restructure relations at work and to limit the benefits and rights that accrue to workers. Alongside this, there has been a gradual consolidation, albeit slowly, of social welfare policies. These new forms of welfare have certainly not slowed reform or even stopped the bleeding incurred from recent economic restructuring. In the worst cases, they have acted as a legitimization of neoliberal reform efforts. Nonetheless even slow moves toward expanded social welfare should be paid attention to, even if there is a risk of forgetting that there is a risk of neglecting the more significant cutbacks that are occurring.

In the end, this was the impression I was left with after the event: that there was something shared in this legacy of social struggle, even though it always seemed to be in a moment of danger of being forgotten (and one could say that current neo-liberal economic restructuring certainly is the product of historical form of amnesia) there was also a strong potential for this legacy to support something else, something not so dominated by the work process or by exclusion from the benefits of economic development. I'm not sure if programs like this will continue to expand, and if so I'm fearful of them becoming co-opted as an excuse for further neoliberal restructuring or becoming coldly instrumentalist like they have become in North America and Europe to a degree, but for the moment this program does point to a potential for new forms of welfare that look quite interesting and participatory, and which we should consider as significant venues of social action alongside other fronts in which the social movements are currently engaged.

Some video the show can be found here, link.

Suspended sentences, suspicious sentences

1. Vice Chair of the KCTU, and founder of Speculation Watch Korea, Hur Young Gu was a given a suspended sentence for taking part in the KCTU rally against the passing of the legislation on the protection (read expansion) of non-regular work back in December. According to Yonhap news agency:

The Seoul Southern District Court sentenced Huh Yeong-gu, vice chairman of the 770,000-member Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, to two years' suspended imprisonment. Chief rally organizer Park Min was handed a one-and-a-half year sentence.
I'm not sure how suspended sentences work here, but why were they given such lengthy suspended sentences? Perhaps this is a technique for dissuading activists from participating/organizing future protests -- in this sense, if one is arrested again are the lengths of prior suspended sentences taken into account for future sentencing? At any rate, punitive protest policing, lack of democratic participation (the labour bill was passed because of a backroom agreement with the nation's conservative trade union federation and not the KCTU), and ministries obsessed with law and order (home affairs, Justice) to the point of ignoring extremely controversial labour and market reforms that only create unrest especially when done without open consent and with the abuse of executive power (fast track negotiation, secrecy, etc) -- all these things lead to the type of violent protests that we see in Korea so its silly to blame it on higher profile union leaders. If any one has any insights on why the unionists where given such high suspended sentences I'd love to hear it.

2. In case you didn't read Christian's comment on the Hyundai strike, it is over, the workers and management agreed to make up the productivity loss if the bonuses were returned. The biggest damage from the strike, however, was that the conservative media were able to use it to continue to tarnish the reputation of unions in the midst of widening domestic inequality. This was similar to the Asiana strike earlier last year. For me, the strike was pretty straight forward, and in the end the economic norm that was violated from the perspective of both sides-- wages for productivity -- was re-established. This sort of struggle is fairly common, and has nothing to do with greed but rather normative practices in the fordist (if you will) workplace. The media however, are obsessed with portraying workers who take collective action, in whatever form, as wreckers of the nation. Honestly, the Hyundai workers are paid fairly, and have successfully fought for their rights in a time of neoliberal restructuring with makes a lot of workers precarious and, unfortunately, more easily resentful at workers who make a good wage that has to do with their position in the automobile industry and for a large conglomerate -- so, it's not exactly a frontline labour struggle amongst the most vulnerable workers but these struggles are important, at least, for defending what benefits workers do have -- but what I don't understand is why the media should be so effective in turning it into a national issue. The focus here should really be on the unequal effects of neoliberal restructuring: huge profits for some conglomerates and for financial investors at the cost of diminished resources, protections, and wages for most workers and wage earners.

Both the union and the company (for signing an agreement with the workers) were targeted by the media here. Even some former student activists whom I had dinner with at this time complained at how selfish the workers were. I think these sorts criticisms are dangerous however, wages gains or bonuses in line productivity are fairly conservative features of capitalist economies in general and offer no threat to profitability much less social security. However, media reporting that frames even workers' as well as company's normative demands as negative are especially dangerous and basically serve to exclude and limit democratic participation in the economy. Hyundai is evil for even negotiation with workers, Samsung is virtuous cause it has no unions.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Next Cinema Seoulidarity Screening: Don't miss it!

From Exit 5 of Honkik Univ. subway station, turn right at "Seven Springs". You'll come to a wide street soon with a Family Mart on the corner. Turn left and walk until the end of the street. Turn right and walk a short distance, Strange Fruit will be on your left. Map @:

Monday, January 22, 2007

Neighbour to the North

Though I don't post on North Korea issues much, I've read a few things as of late that are worth posting the links to. Over at Foreign Policy in Focus, there is good statement from John Feffer and Martin Hart-Landsberg on the morality of sanctions, including the recent economic front and the inherent danger in the Proliferation Security Intiative (PSI), against North Korea.
...because of the increased risk of war in and around the Korean peninsula, the sanctions are not only a blunt instrument but possibly a very dangerous one as well. While North Korea’s human rights record is deplorable, a war on the Korean peninsula, which would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Koreans in the first months of conflict, would be a human rights disaster of much greater magnitude.
Over and Frog in a Well, meanwhile, Owen has a funny post on the perils of using the word 'civil war' to describe the Korean War, even for the President. Seems there is very little room interpretation.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

good fta stories in the Hankyoreh

Just thought I would share some stories on recent developments in the FTA negotiations that were in the Hankyoreh today (link, and link). It seems that as the negotiations progress there has been a great deal more learning going on by both the media and society at large; as a result there are much more stories available in both the alternative and even, occasionally, the mainstream press, as to what the effects of the agreement could potentially be as well as the double standards around many of the policies being negotiated.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

KGEU video, FTA protests, 386 interviews

1. Over at the KGEU site they have an English video up documenting the history of the KGEU (Korean Government Employee's Union) and the ongoing repression against them. Besides that, they also have a lot of documents from their struggle and updates on the current situation and the limitations placed on the organizing rights of public and civil servants. (video: link).

2. Yesterday was the beginning of the 6th round of Free Trade Agreement negotiation between Korea and the US, as well as, you guessed it, the sixth round of protests. The government has still outlawed all anti-FTA protests, and mobilized police around the country to stop demonstrators from traveling to Seoul (link).

There is also a controversy brewing about the banning of anti-FTA ads on television. Every day the government plays numerous and frankly dreadful and misleading ads on the television, but guess what, the broadcasting agency has said that: " we have no specific data showing that life would get worse after FTA negotiations end.’’ And so, has banned the anti-FTA ads. Well, there is specific evidence about the effects of a possible FTA for the farm and film sectors, and this is not really in dispute. Also there no specific evidence that life will get better for the majority of the population either, so why the double treatment? Anyways, I never knew there was such a high bar for accuracy in advertising (and these ads are surely more accurate than most of what you see on the tube). Anyways, you can read about this here in full, it might bother you though as all cynical abuses of state power rightfully should.

Speaking of cynical abuses of power, it seems that the Korean negotiators have made even more concessions at the negotiation, basically opening the way for Chapter 11 NAFTA style lawsuits against local governments in key areas such as services and environmental protection, etc, if they cause a profit loss. The implications of this are staggering, and will probably result in a large transfer of wealth from the public to the private sphere. But that's what the negotiators seem to what, national origins aside. Here a more detailed review of the concessions here.

3. Finally, since this year is the 20th anniversary of the June 1987 Democratic Uprising, the Hankyoreh has been running a series of profiles of 80s activists (or the 386 generation as they are sometimes called) and where they are now 20 years later. I've read the first few profiles and enjoyed them, gives you a sense of the right social history here and the continuing legacy of that era. Here's the link to the first in that series, there are two more up on the main page.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Back in Korea: Hyundai stike, NHRC on Ha Joon Geun, Gwangju sues anti-FTA activists

I'm back from North America, and settling down to things: which means, of course, sifting through some of the news and documents that I've missed. This will take a little bit of time, but for today here are a few interesting tidbits.

1. The strike at Hyundai over Christmas bonuses is still creating news, the latest news is that talks may be underway soon between labour and management here. Something to watch out for is the use of damage claims to punish striking workers.

2. I missed the release, but the National Human Rights Commission denounced the policing of this summers POSCO strike and protests that lead to the death of Ha Joon Geun and the injury of many more workers. Here's an excerpt from their report:

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea acknowledged that riot police had used excessive violence to break up the demonstration on the day of Ha Joong Keun died and further it abused banning of notification to disburse the demonstrations. The Commission acknowledged that Ha Joong Keun died during the riot police’s forcible attempts to break up the demonstration. The Commission recommended that the Attorney General fully investigate into the death of Ha Joong Keun. It also called for disciplinary action against the Chief Commander at the time of the demonstration---Pohang Nambu Police Chief as well as issue a warning to the Head of the Seoul Regional SWAT Police due use of excessive repression against the demonstrators.
3. Finally the city of Gwangju took anti-FTA demonstrators to court and is seizing their personal property as a mean of retribution against protests against the FTA there in November.

Judge Seo Jeong-am, in charge of civil affairs in Gwangju District Court, said that the court accepted Gwangju City’s request that was filed against six protesters, including a trade union member of KIA Motors, to secure bonds when the city won the lawsuit against the protesters, who took to the streets on November 22, 2006.

The judge also said, “The court decided to issue a provisional attachment on 200 million won (200,000 US) worth of real estate as Gwangju City’s request was considered reasonable.”

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Growing Inequality

Here's the link to an interesting article in the Korea Times on the expansion of irregular work and growing income inequality. It brings up some of the issues (industrial unionism, irregular work legislation, etc) that we've been posting on recently and connects them with larger issue of social inequality. Enjoy.