Thursday, November 15, 2007

Worker's Protest, Chun Tae Il

Korea celebrates two 'May Days': the actual international day of worker's protest and an indigenous holiday commemorating Chun Tae Il, who immolated himself in the early seventies in protest of the regressive labour relations that animated the sweatshops of the textile boom of those days.

Last weekend's Chun Tae Il event got international press coverage but little contextualization. Most papers reported it as an Anti- Korea-US Free Trade Agreement event. However, the issues are more complicated than that. The FTA, the war in Iraq, this summer's assault on a largely female led irregular worker movement, vicious and violent urban displacement for redevelopment schemes, and the continuing power imbalances between of all types of workers, the government, and employers informed the scale and intensity of the protests this time.

Korea's labour movements and grassroots civil society groups have been a great hope for many in more recent years, as Korean workers have been able to achieve gains at the industrial level and in heavy industries. However, in most spaces their activism is still met with violence by a system that just won't reform itself in a way that would consider labour movements as an active political partner to bargain with and co-determine government policy. Hence, protests are often met with censure and violence, especially in times when the government gets set on passing controversial policy without public consultation and input in the process, especially in areas such as labour and trade policy where one sees the use of violence increasing in the last few years.

The Hankyoreh, in their coverage of the event, reported that the police presence at the rally was 88,000 police versus 24,000 protesters. Indeed, from video of the protests, one can see that the events got rather medieval, with police bus-top combat, armed charges, and routed 'soldiers' (if you will) and civilians, lying injured after the charge.

I don't have room for a systematic analysis of the social context in which this violence takes places, or the full tensions involved Korean labour relations at the moment, suffice to say that such levels of police violence, spurred on by government policy, are unnecessary. There is plenty of room for reform in Korean state-society relationships, and much of this conflict comes from not only efforts by elements in the Korean state and dominant economic classes to scuttle attempts at social reform, but also from the lack of determination of politicians in the last two governments to stand by the commitments to cooperative reform that they themselves made, and which were largely based on their own experience of political violence during the democracy movement.

Certainly Korean politics and labour relations do not need to erupt violently in this way, as they periodically do, but what would be needed to prevent such social conflict would involve commitments to social reform that successive governments seem unwilling to diligently pursue and thus further apathy over the political process, social conflict and the political crisis of the liberal and progressive blocs will continue into the future unless substantive changes are made, not only by political parties but at multiple levels of governance. Until then, the medieval tinge to protest and police reaction seems set to continue.

More links and pictures on the protest are available here, and more background info on Korean labour relations at this blog in general.

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