Thursday, July 26, 2007

KMWU strike consolidates gains toward industrial unionism

To answer the question I posed on tuesday: a qualified yes.

From the Korea Times:

Unionized metal workers ended their weeklong strike yesterday after management agreed to increase minimum wages and consult with labor before making any decisions that could affect job security.

In their 10th round of meetings, the Korean Metal Workers' Union and representatives of industry management agreed to set this year's minimum monthly wage at 900,000 won ($985), an 8 percent increase from last year. The new wage applies to all employees, including temporary and migrant workers.

The KMWU had originally demanded 936,000 won, which is about half the average wage of the entire industry workforce.

The management also agreed that companies would notify labor unions about plans for mergers, divestitures or disposals at least 70 days before execution and seek the union's consent.

The companies also promised to provide fair terms to subcontracting firms.

Under the accord, the two sides will also set up a joint committee on securing employment within the metal industry.

More, here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Can Korean workers break out of enterprise unionism?

A recent article in the Korean Times explores this topic. Though the editorial slant is a bit reactive, the article is worth a read to get a sense at the initiative towards industrial unionism in South Korea.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Update on E-Land struggle

The UNI Global Union, which represents commercial workers worldwide, has started up a site dedicated to and with with plenty of updates on the Eland struggle. Including video from local TV of the raid on Homever workers at worldcup stadium, and a longer series of videos from the union itself. It's pretty emotional stuff to watch, violent police action in a supermarket makes for especially jarring video. The Hankyoreh has also run detailed story on the sit-in, police reaction, and solidarity given to the struggle by progressives. You can find the link to that here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Police raid E-Land Sit-in

Breaking news: the sit-in is over and has been raided by over 7000 police. The CINA blog has more pics and info here, and video from the previous days protests here and here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

New story on labour law at Interlocals

Below is my attempt to summarize what has been going on with the controversy around the new labour law to date. Interlocals has been attracting a bit more attention recently as its founder Oiwan Lam has been in the news for taking on the Hong Kong Television and Licensing Authority. The story broke in Boing Boing last week, thanks to a poorly spelled item suggestion by yours truly (now more in the world will know about my bad spelling!), and was followed up on in the following days more and more.

South Korea: Labour strife escalates as new labour law comes into effect
Jamie Doucette

On July 1st South Korea's new Law on Non-Regular Work came into effect. The principle of the law was to protect non-regular workers, but in practice the way in which it has been put together and implemented has led to protection only for a few and increased precariousness for many.

The law was a long time in the making, and the original plan was to involve all parties -- unions, business, and government -- in the drafting process of the bill. However, very early on the tripartite process broke down, with the progressive Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) pulling out of the process when it became clear that the law would only lead to the expansion of casual, contingent, contract and temporary forms of work.

The tripartite commission did not attempt attempt to assuage the worries of the KCTU but instead rushed through an agreement on the bill with the support of the more conservative Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU). The bill was passed amidst heated protest in the late fall of 2006 and came into effect on July 1st.

After the bill was passed, the government as well as some larger firms announced that they would be regularizing several thousands of employees that had been employed with non-regular contracts. However, in the lead up to the July 1st deadline, it was found that numerous private employers as well as the government itself had been laying off non-regular workers or forcing them to sign short term contracts (in some cases 'zero' work term contracts that would allow employees to be layed off on the spot if need be).

A recent article in Korea's left-liberal daily The Hankyoreh highlighted some of these abuses, reporting that recent union surveys (carried out by both the KCTU and FKTU) had found cases of lay-offs, re-assignment or other unfair hiring practices at firms across all sectors, from hospitals and postal delivery to banking and construction.

For example, the Hankyoreh reports that, "According to the FKTU, which conducted its own inspection by visiting 56 companies between July 4-22 [sic], the Korea Expressway Corporation is currently moving to outsource its 2,000 non-regular workers and Korea Post, Korea’s postal service, also plans to replace its 3,000 letter carriers, delivery people and postal workers with workers from temporary agencies. Both companies are state affiliates."

Other investigations by the Hankyoreh itself and other investigators have found similar practices at other firms.

[Image courtesy of Voice of the People]
It is no surprise that in the midst of these practices, labour strife has heated up as the new law has come into effect. The most prominent case in the media so far has been the case of retail workers at the Homever and New Core department stores owned by Korea's E-land group. There, mostly female cashiers have staged sit-ins that have drawn wide scale support protests and boycotts as well as attention from police who have sealed off E-Land's stores. Public support for the struggle and outcry over the E-Land's hiring practices intensified after civic groups were able to uncover that the company had forged documents to avoid regularizing employee's contracts. The government has since stepped in to mediate the strike but has yet done nothing to support the workers demands for regular status.

In addition to the strikes at E-Land and Homever, female workers from the KTX, Korea's high-speed rail system, began a hunger strike on July 2nd to protest their employer and the government's continued refusal to meet their demands for gender equality, safe working conditions, and job security. The KTX workers have been on strike since March 2006 and have also faced police action against them, even as the government's own National Human Rights Commission has stated that KORAIL must redress its 'gender discriminative employment structure.'

What is interesting about the latest round of strikes over non-regular work is that they have been largely undertaken by the female workforce that has been the target of both unfair practices and labour restructuring policies. This has led many in the grassroots Korean labour movement to hope that their activism can lead to a renaissance in female-led trade unionism -- women workers by and large led Korea's nascent democratic trade union movement in the late seventies with heroic strikes in textile and light manufacturing sectors. Korea is more well known for the image of militant blue collar unionists in heavy industries, but these unionists would probably not have made the gains they began to achieve in the late eighties and early nineties if were not for the groundwork and networks laid for them by the previous generation of female unionists and activists.

This time, however, whether or not the irregular workers movement and its strong female leadership expands and makes concrete social gains may depend on the solidarity extended to them from the large union confederations, who now carry significantly more power than they did decades ago. Support here needs to include not just lip service to the plight of irregular workers, but concrete changes to union structure that have been recommended by grassroots labour groups, such as stronger voting rights for irregular workers and a greater participatory role for them (as well as migrant workers) in policy formation.

Jamie Doucette, July 17, 2007
Images 2 and 3 are from KTX workers site linked above.

A note on the title photo

The image on the left is a minjung painting of Lee Han Yeol, who was killed by a tear gas canister during the 1987 democratic protests. Minjung stands for the masses, or the people, and the minjung movement is another name for the Korean democracy movement. Lee Han Yeol can be regarded as heroic martyrs of the democracy struggle. The picture on the right is a satirical "post-minjung" artwork that mimics the portrait on the left. It was used as a critique of neoliberal reforms undertaken during the DJ and Roh governments: governments which emerged from the democracy movement. The youth in the photos are wearing the Korean national soccer team jersey, and one has been hit in the head, ostensibly, after a night of partying. The picture seems to be saying something about how the heroic struggles of yesterday have been replaced by sports nationalism and consumer spectacle. The photo in the middle is a painting by artist Yoo Chang Chang that represents a sense of fragmentation. Here it loosely signifies the transformation of Korean society and politics from the minjung movement to the present.

More on the new labour law from the Hankyoreh

From today's Hankyoreh
Labor unions expose unfair hiring practices: Companies under investigation say inspection results were exaggerated

A couple of weeks into the introduction of a controversial law designed to improve working conditions for non-regular employees, labor activists argue that many local companies are rushing to remove previously contracted workers from their payrolls. Businesses maintain that the new law may add more financial burden on them. --> Link.

Meanwhile, the Hankyoreh also has the latest on the E-Land struggle here.

Also, it seems that the KTX workers, who are still on hunger strike, have created a blog, in English, of their own, which the two images you see here are from. Here's the link. At the moment, they have an emergency petition there that you can sign.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Crucifying irregular workers?

An illustrated column from the Hankyoreh entitled: A backhanded bargain.
Caption: The company E-Land fashions itself as a Christian enterprise. However, it has just laid off over 900 of its non-regular workers so as to avoid treating them better as the law requires.

Most of those being laid off are employed by Homever and New Core, E-Land affiliates.

E-Land, in observation of its work, feels called to prayer before crosses to which its workers have been nailed: “Save us, dear Lord, through mass layoffs.”

[Update, July 13: seems that it has recently come to light that E-land has been using phoney documents to avoid regularizing its workers, read more here.]

The struggle at E-Land is continuing amidst the usual police presence and threats from government and management. Meanwhile, the Hankyoreh has reported on the history of bad practices at E-Land affliates Homever and New Core.
Observers have said that one of main reasons for worsening labor relations at E-Land is that the management has not, in essence, acknowledged the union’s existence.

In 1997, the E-Land union walked off their jobs for 57 days because the union has not reached any collective bargaining agreements with the management for over 4 years since the union was first formed in 1993.

In 2000, the union staged strikes for 265 days, demanding that management improve working conditions for temporary workers. At that time, the Ministry of Labor asked a court to issue an arrest warrant against E-Land founder and chairman Park Songs on charges of conducting unfair labor practices. Despite several requests, Park did not respond to the warrant while staying overseas. The labor disputes have continued to deepen as Park travels overseas whenever there are important events in labor-management relations, union officials say, referring to him as the final decision maker of the management. Park is reportedly out of the country now.

Labor tension was aggravated when E-Land acquired New Core stores in 2003 and Carrefour stores in 2006. Choi Ho-seop, a union official, said, “There has always been friction as management has not honored its agreements with the union.” According to the Ministry of Labor’s May inspection reports on Newcore department stores, the management has violated 10 labor law provisions.

You can read the full story here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

the fight against mass irregularization

On July 9, a former attendant of Korea’s express train KTX, holds up two cards during the seventh day of a hunger strike being conducted by laid off attendants in front of Seoul Station.

The cards carry a warning to Lee Chul, CEO of Korail,which operates KTX, demanding that he bring the laid off attendants back to work. -- Hankyoreh

The new bill on irregular workers came into effect on July 1st and since then there has been a rash of firings, strikes, and conflicts at a number of workplaces. This is because employers are trying to avoid regularizing their employees status (with the exception of some civil servants, white collar, and firms up the value-added chain) especially in so-called 'low-skilled' sectors.

A new trend is to force workers to sign a contract with a temporary staffing agency while moving regular workers out of those same jobs into other divisions so as not to break the law of equal pay for equal work. Basically, inequality is becoming institutionalized by setting the rules under which differential norms and benefits can be used to shape work, rather than leaving it up to the discretion of employers whose discrimination against irregular workers generated the need for legislation, but a form of legislation that is quite weak and which is leading to a number of bad practices.

That most of these sectors seeing a rise in temporary work contracts have high concentrations of female workers speaks to the gendering of irregular work in South Korea. That said, these workers have been taking impressive collective action, with the strike at E-land and a 7 day old hunger strike by the KTX attendants that were fired for labour organizing over a year ago. One only hopes that their efforts, as well as those of the E-land strikers pay off, and that solidarity with irregular workers expands, especially from the male-dominated trade unions in the heavy industrial and other sectors.

This last point begs the question of how best to take up the issue of the fight against irregular work. So far grassroots labour groups have done the most work, and have made proposals to make irregular workers key members of trade union federations. However, their voting power, as far as I know, remains quite weak or non-existent, thus leaving union activists to attempt to represent their cause rather than having the irregular workers themselves participate in making union policy through power in decision making. Bringing the irregular issue beyond lip service and into genuine participatory democratic trade unionism and creating more democratic social institutions is certainly the task of the day -- one that movements in most countries are having just as much trouble with. Nonetheless, it seems to be a crucial task if social justice is to carry the day.

Monday, July 09, 2007

FTA re-signed

The Korea US FTA was re-signed (not, unfortunately, resigned, however) on June 30th. It still needs to be ratified, however, and the campaign against that has heated up even more lately with some high profile opposition to the deal coming from many in the former reform camp.

Lee Jeong Woo, former Chairman of the President's Policy Planning Commission from 2002-2005, in a recent editorial harshly criticized the Roh administration for moving right ward, when it should, he argues, be moving more towards a social welfare state.

The ‘‘Participatory Government’’ of Roh Moo-hyun has, over the last four years, worked in its own way to overcome a culture where ‘‘growth is everything’’ and ‘‘the market rules above all,’’ and I praise it for its efforts. The results have been a greater emphasis on harmony between growth, the re-distribution of wealth and the role of the public sector. Now, however, it is saying that it is suddenly going to trash that philosophy and go back to the familiar priorities of growth and the market. Put simply, it has turned to the right, and there ahead lies the cliff. Right now what is right for Korea is a greater turn towards the left. It is the Scandinavian social democratic model that has been judged the best of all the market economy experiments the human race has experienced so far. In public opinion surveys as well, it is the Scandinavian model that Koreans say they like the most. Though of course it would be difficult to move to that model right away, we should be gazing toward Scandinavia to get there. A free trade agreement with the U.S. means we are going to go in the wrong direction.
Elsewhere it has been revealed that most of the poisonous parts of the deal (the sections on investor-state disputes for example) have remained intact.

Meanwhile the government has continued cracking down on the opposition to the FTA with more and more arrests.