Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Irregular workers struggles in Ulsan

Last week I visited the industrial city of Ulsan. This was my first time visiting Ulsan, and I must say that I was quite surprised by the concentration of heavy industries there. On the approach to the city, one first passes a nuclear power plant, then for the next 10 minutes a variety of heavy chemical and petroleum processing plants. That's not all, either. Hyundai heavy industries, as well as automotive and shipbuilding are also there. One could describe it as a Hamilton on steroids (Hamilton is a famous industrial city in Canada near where I grew up -- now deindustrializing, I should mention) .

While I was there, I stopped by a local labour communications organization and they brought us to a sit-in struggle at a local technical college that had been going on for about 28 days. The sit-in was by irregular custodial and food service workers, 8 in total, had all worked for the college for 5-7 years but were all irregular workers, making, in some cases as little as a quarter of the regular monthly wage of the regular staff at the college, or $US 700 month compared to about $US 3000. Thus, the workers decided to form their own union -- I couldn't get the story straight as to whether or not they had tried to join an existing company union and were rejected (something was said to that effect, but a little bit got lost in the translation), or if they had simply tried to unionize their subcontracting firm; but, anyway, there seems to be a lot of these sorts of things going on so I wouldn't be surprised either way.

The school, however, decided to fire and rehire all the workers under a different subcontracting firm once they started getting organized. So, the workers demanded that since the school is really their employer it should start direct negotiations with the workers themselves and the workers started their sit-in.

The struggle is slowly starting to get more support. Kang Su Dol wrote a recent article (in Korean) on the Ulsan labour news site, and you can also read a poem about the struggle by the irregular workers union head Mi Hwa Won as well. Certainly, their struggle has been a hard one, with harassment from management and right wing students groups that have tried to kick them out. Similar stuggles by custodial workers in Kwangju have been met by violence as you can see from this video.

Unfortunately, this sort of struggle has not been getting the support it should from the organized sectors of the labour movement many of whom in recent years have opted for a more bread and butter unionism rather than broadly supporting struggles by the irregular and unemployed. However, it is the rights of these workers, as workers that are in effectively bound to a workplace but divorced of benefits, participation, and rights from it, that should be a major part of labour organizing. These struggles will not simply go away, especially as inequality increases and social welfare spending lags behind.

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