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.”

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