Workers at South Korea’s three largest supermarket chains—Emart, Lotte Mart and Homeplus—are joining forces to establish an industrial union to fight for the country’s five hundred thousand mart workers.

The newly-formed Mart Industrial Labor Union Organizing Committee held a press conference on November 15 to announce its drive to launch the union before the end of the year. The organizing committee is the culmination of discussions among union leaders at Lotte Mart, Emart, and Homeplus since 2015 about unifying all grocery workers under one industrial union.

Photo: Minplus
Photo: Minplus

Corporate mega-marts like Emart and Homeplus have become a mainstay of South Korea’s retail economy in the past twenty years. The combined sales of the “big three” giants—Lotte Mart, Emart and Homeplus— represent eighty percent of the total industry’s sales.

Out of the 500,000 workers in the supermarket industry, only 85,000 are “regular workers” directly employed by the supermarkets. The majority are irregular workers hired through a web of subcontracting firms to perform high-intensity physical labor for subpar wages. Average wages at Emart, the largest supermarket chain in the country, are 6,150 won (USD 5.62)—a mere 120 won (USD .23) above the minimum wage. Wages at Homeplus and Lotte Mart are no better.

Irregular workers, however, have little labor protection and are denied the right to organize. Because of the highly complex structure of subcontracting arrangements, most workers have no idea who makes decisions about their wages or who should be held responsible when a problem arises in their working conditions. At Emart and Lotte Mart, only company unions controlled by the employers have legal standing to collectively bargain and have undermined the power of democratically-elected unions.

Securing collective bargaining rights for democratically-elected unions is a top priority for the Mart Industrial Labor Union Organizing Committee, which says the new union will fight for the rights of all mart workers.

The organizing committee says the union will also fight for:

  • An end to labor union repression and retaliation against union leaders;
  • A law to protect service workers from emotional abuse, which is rampant in the industry;
  • Guaranteed job security and labor rights for subcontracted workers;
  • A minimum wage of 10,000 won (USD 9.05); and
  • An end to the labor market reform initiative started by ousted President Park Geun-hye

The organizing committee’s first order of business is to publish and distribute a newsletter for all mart workers to unify the workforce. It says the country’s general election in June 2018 will be “judgment day” for anti-labor candidates.


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