Wednesday, April 23, 2008

300 days into the Eland strike

As the Hankyoreh reported last week:

The labor union of E-Land marked the 300th day of its strike on April 17. With no breakthrough in sight, Kim Gyeong-wook, the head of the E-Land union, expressed a sense of frustration, saying, “The E-Land dispute will only end if the union dies or the company dies.”

Since the strike began in June, the union and management have met several times, but the two sides have failed to narrow the gaps in key issues such as job security for part-time workers, rehiring of fired union workers and punishment of striking workers. Intermittent negotiations between the union and management were stalled again since early April. (link)

Cina has posted a video chronicling the strike in recent months as well as some more useful links and photos.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Let the revenge begin, and send your elderly to work while you are at it: Leading Business groups propose worker protections be slashed.

The heritage foundation deconstructs Lee Myung Bak's supposed pragmatism for what it is: conservatism, and the Heritage foundation hope to celebrate this fact.

Seems I missed these two other stories (thanks to IKTU for posting them), the first is about plans by Lee Myung Bak to raid the pension system to pay back defaulted credit card debt. The second is on some of his plans for education.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Mental stress and labour-management relations

From today's Hankyoreh:

Historic court ruling classifies mental problems as occupational hazard: Employees subjected to discriminatory treatment, were separated from their peers and put under surveillance

A South Korean court ruled that 12 employees of a local company were suffering from an occupational hazard. The ruling, which said that the mental problems, including depression, suffered by the workers were symptomatic of the company’s discriminatory treatment and its surveillance of their union activities. This is the first time labor-management disputes have been acknowledged as a source of work-related stress and mental illness labeled as an occupational hazard.

On April 7, Seoul Administrative Court Judge Ham Jong-sik ruled in favor of the 12 employees of Hitec RCD Korea Inc., a maker of electronics parts. The 12 workers filed suit against the state-run Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service after the government agency refused to pay for the costs associated with their medical treatment.

In the ruling, the court said: “The union members were seen as being under significant stress because the company monitored and controlled them via closed-circuit televisions and deployed them to separate production lines. The court acknowledges that their mental problems were caused by discriminatory treatment.”

The dispute between the unionized workers of Hitec RCD Korea and the management began in 2002. The workers launched hunger strikes and partial walkouts, after which the company shut down the factory and took legal action against them. In February 2003, the company fired five of the workers, including union leader Kim Hye-jin, alleging they had obstructed the work of the company and other employees. Some of the union members returned to work after the strike, but the company subjected them to discriminatory treatment, separating them from other employees by stationing them at separate production lines. In certain cases, the company gave its employees money so that they could participate in a company picnic; the unionized workers were not allowed to receive this money, though other employees were. As part of the dispute, the workers sued the company for illegally monitoring them via closed-circuit televisions; the company was forced to remove four of the cameras being used for this purpose.

As the labor-management dispute escalated, the unionized workers continued to be threatened with blackmail and slander, and many said that they felt they were “always under surveillance.” They filed a petition with the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service to get medical treatment for stress-related symptoms, but the government agency rejected the petition, saying, “There is no relationship between work and labor-management relations.”

While the court has now ruled in favor of the workers, it seems that they still have a long way to go. Kim, the company’s union leader, said, “The unionized workers, including the five whom the Supreme Court ruled had illegally been fired, haven’t been returned to their original work stations as the company has split the production line into a separate entity.”

Friday, April 04, 2008

same old same old

Well, after yesterday's surprising post, it's back to good old fashioned divisive, conflict generating policies:

New law revision could weaken unions’ right to strike

Despite objections from labor community, Justice Ministry attempts to limit voting on strikes, the Ministry of Justice is pushing ahead with a revision of laws to prevent trade unions from voting to go on strike until after a breakdown in labor-management negotiations occurs. The labor community, however, objects to the move, saying that the new law will limit the constitutional right to strike and disrupt voluntary labor-management negotiations.

The ministry announced on April 3, that it is considering a proposal to the Labor Ministry that would revise the related laws on the timing of when unions go on strike. Under the new law, unions would not be allowed to vote to strike until after labor-management negotiations break down completely. The existing laws state that walkouts should be decided by a majority vote within a union, but there is no mention about when the vote is to be conducted.

Lee Geum-ro, an official of the Justice Ministry, said, “In many cases, trade unions vote on a strike to pressure a company before collective bargaining begins. The ministry will survey cases from other countries and then propose that the Labor Ministry revise the related laws.” The ministry has begun reviewing all of the labor laws, according to the official.

In response, the labor community urged the government to discontinue the plan, saying that the new laws could infringe upon the Constitution and worsen labor-management conflicts.

Gwon Du-seop, a lawyer with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of South Korea’s umbrella labor organizations, said that the issue of putting restrictions on the timing of when a vote to strike should take place was briefly discussed when a road map for labor-management relations was under review in September 2006, but the Tripartite Commission did not adopt it because it would severely limit laborers’ right to strike. “I don’t understand why the Justice Ministry is raising the same issue again,” added Gwon.

Woo Moon-sook, the spokeswoman of the KCTU, said, “In reality, employers tend to avoid or conduct unbalanced negotiations, even if labor unions stage walkouts in situations such as what happened with E-Land or Koscom. If the right to strike, which is a laborer’s last resort, is restricted, the basic rights of laborers will inevitably be violated.”

Korea’s other, major umbrella labor union, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, said, “Even if laborers decide to stage a strike, in most cases, they cancel the strike after negotiating with the management. If they can vote only after negotiations have failed, conflicts may be aggravated because the eleventh-hour dialogue between labor and management has been blocked.”

Thursday, April 03, 2008

not a terribly bad idea?

This one is going to be a first. I actually agree some aspects of one policy of the new regime, just one so far, though. This would be one of the few actual 'pragmatic' plans that it has beyond the reckless, crisis prone policies that he also seems set to unveil. This is the plan to use Nonghyup's profits to pay off the debts of some farmers. The principle here that I support would be that the National Farmers Cooperative is actually run like a cooperative and not a profit-making business. However, plans shouldn't merely be forced onto it and there should be more protections and socialization of costs at different levels of governance that compliment the kind of relief highlighted here.

Gov't pushing to ease farmers' debt burden

The government is pushing to introduce a new agriculture equipment leasing system to help ease the farmers' debt burden, a senior policymaker said on Thursday.

The plan calls for the state-supported National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (Nonghyup) to use profits generated through its banking operations to help alleviate debt incurred by farmers who have bought equipment such as combines, tractors and rice transplanters.

Minister for Food and Agriculture Chung Woon-chun said Nonghyup posts profits of 1.2-1.3 trillion (US$1.23-1.33 billion) won every year that could be diverted to help relieve some of the 1.2 trillion won in debt incurred by farmers from buying equipment.

The official said in talks with the cooperative's managers in Seoul that a leasing arrangement would be a feasible means to reduce debt, while at the same time not hurting the ability to raise crops.

"Nonghyup could buy farm equipment from farmers and then lease it back to those who need it," Chung said. The size of the purchase would be determined by the size of the debt of individual farming households.

He added that such support is in accordance with the cooperative's goal of helping farmers.

The minister said that measures are underway to ascertain exact levels of debt, with a detailed blueprint on how best to push for the new system to be announced at the end of the month.

Using farm equipment is essential for mass production, but because of steep prices, small farms are unable to generate enough money to pay back loans used to buy the equipment.

Nonghyup officials said they will try to make changes that will allow the purchase of farm equipment and the start of a leasing program, although some reservations have been raised.

Insiders said that while the agriculture ministry thinks the cooperative generates more than 1 trillion won worth of profit every year, a lot of this must be set aside to meet the capital adequacy ratio set by the Bank for International Settlements.

Of the total, about 650 billion won is reserved for capital adequacy and support projects. It said another 140 billion won is used as dividends for regional cooperatives which are shareholders of the nationwide organization.

This, it said, leaves around 400 billion won available for the leasing equipment, with even this amount unlikely to be used entirely because of the need to maintain emergency relief reserves.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

neoliberal left, neoliberal right; or, market friendly left, chaebol friendly right?

Two stories in the Hankyoreh highlight a tension that I've seen coming for a while and which I have felt cautious about in my own writing here and elsewhere. That is the difference between the Roh and Lee regimes on economic policy. Undoubtedly, the Roh regime focused on trade and labour liberalization, corporate governance restructuring (in favor of shareholders and accountability), as well as some financial liberalization. Roh's policies were certainly 'market friendly' in a neo-liberal sense: a notion of the market best approximated by the neo-classical ideal of a free market of small and medium sized firms in perfect competition.

Now, Lee also claims that his policies are market friendly but that he is focusing on competition first. In other words he favors the domestic conglomerates and proposes to do away not just with rules designed to enhance transparency and competition in the way highlighted above but the very supervisory role of the state in guaranteeing the rules under which that competition takes place. Or so I gander from two recent articles in the Hankyoreh on the restructuring of the Fair Trade Commission and the Banking sector: changes to both reflect a rather reckless 'let the chaebol own what they want' attitude with none of the regulatory requirements of past regimes, including the dictatorships that Lee and others like him saw as rational economic planners who used state power to channel finance to industrial development -- that is not what is going on here.

Kim Jin-bang, a senior activist with the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and a professor at Inha University, blamed the FTC for “Its plan to ease regulations, despite a lack of plans for supervisions and punishments, which shows that (the FTC) may sit idly by if the market collapses.”

I guess the irony here is that the left, often cursed for the 'lost decade' of slowed growth since the 1997 crisis and criticised for being ideological (a la socialism) were actually better neo-liberals in the sense that their neoliberalism was more attached to actual economic ideals -- ones which I myself am very critical of as I see no invisible hand to economic life and worry about the forms of power masked by such rhetoric. Meanwhile the right seem not simply pragmatic -- as in 'let's see what works' -- in their policy choices but just corrupt and after power for their friends in ways that might be much more dangerous to the economy, environment and society in the long term. Similar issues to these are mirrored, I suppose, in the continued controversy over the new right's 'textbook' of revisions of the historical record and their shinning appraisals of past colonial and dictatorial regimes.