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
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.