Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Neoliberalism gone wacky

What is interesting about the truckers strike that is now going is that the government is saying that it is going to force truckers back to work. However, truckers are considered 'self-employed' and therefore it is their right to refuse a contract. In other words lacking a collective agreement they have the option of 'exit' under contract law. This a feature of a lot of neoliberal labour market flexibilization, but the government does not want to recognize even this. It's funny, many of the truckers would like instead to be considered workers, with a collective agreement, but the government won't recognize that either. So, that is the present dilemma. The government says truckers are workers and then orders them back to work, the truckers say they are workers and demand a contract but the government says they are self employed and thus not allowed to collectively bargain. There is the paradox, it doesn't even seem to be about defining how one participates in the market anymore: with a collective or individual contract, instead it seems purely about a harder form of class power and the forced compulsion to work.

[Editorial] Redefining the meaning of a laborer

One of the primary reasons why the Korea Cargo Workers Union strikes again and again is that a permanent negotiation between the KCWU and the shippers is impossible. Since the law categorizes drivers who own their cargo trucks as self-employed, it is impossible for the KCWU and a representative group of shippers to negotiate several issues, including the transport rate. As a result, all things came to a head and a large-scale strike cripples cargo movement once every few years. That is why the government needs to acknowledge laborer rights of KCWU members at this point and move forward with discussions to grant them a legal status the same as, or similar to, laborers.

In fact, the problem, regardless of the KCWU’s strike, has been one of the key labor issues in which the government should play a leading role to resolve. Like cargo truck drivers, there are a growing number of people who work like laborers but are categorized self-employed. Labor organizations estimated the number of those workers, who are described as specially-employed workers, stood at some 1.8 million people.

Of them, many workers became “self-employed” at the request of their employers and signed a subcontracting or consignment contract, instead of a labor contract. Until the early 1990s, most drivers of cargo trucks and ready-mixed concrete vehicles were regular workers at construction companies. As the companies handed over their trucks to drivers and changed their contract formats, the drivers became a “personal businessperson” only in appearance.

In European nations and Japan, there is an overall trend where the government grants legal rights for specially-hired workers, by categorizing them as a laborer or a worker similar to a laborer. In 1974, the German government allowed the specially-employed people to join or establish a labor union after introducing the concept of a worker similar to a laborer. The French government guarantees collective rights for specially-employed workers.

In particular, it is notable because the number of specially-employed people has sharply risen since the IMF bailout in late 1997. By changing the contract format, an employer is freed from following labor laws and paying for various types of insurance such as workers’ compensation. To avoid regulations and financial burdens, it is certain that employers would intensify their efforts to change the contract format. It is time for the government and the National Assembly to make sincere efforts to redefine the meaning of a laborer and expand the scope of it.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]


  1. What does the government think it is to demand the truckers to work when it has no legal rights? Very perverse indeed. Flagging nationalism and the `sake of the economy' when things do not go as it wishes.

    So what happened in the end? Are they out of strike now?

  2. the truckers essentially won, companies agreed to an 8-hour day and to pay the extra fuel costs. However, government supervision will be required so there is always the risk that in a few month the deal will not be recognized in a de facto rather than de jure manner.