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.

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