By Wolsan Liem, Director of International and Korean Peninsula Affairs of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU)

Members of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU), walked off the job in a coordinated simultaneous strike action on September 27 in opposition to the South Korean government’s imposition of a performance-related pay and termination system on public institution employees to liberalize the public sector. This national strike action, which has involved over sixty thousand workers and sixteen KPTU affiliated locals, is the longest in a series of rolling strikes by public and financial industry unions against the government’s policy, which has been one of the most central industrial issues in South Korea this year.


The problems with performance-related pay

The most immediate issue at hand in the strike – performance-related pay (PRP) – may sound familiar to many people in developed countries. The term indicates a salary structure that includes reward for achievement of specific performance targets as opposed to one solely based on years of service or job qualification. Over the last two decades, performance-related pay of some form has been introduced in the public sector in roughly two-thirds of OECD countries as part of wider austerity and liberalization programs. In general it has been found by experts and unions alike to be difficult to implement fairly and damage workers’ morale. Public sector workers as well as some employers have found that by stimulating competition among workers who need to cooperate with one another to complete the complex tasks associated with public services, PRP threatens the quality of services and creates dangerous risks in safety-critical industries like public transport.

All of these problems are main concerns for the Korean public institution workers now on strike. And the performance-related pay system the Korean government is seeking to implement is much more extreme than what is generally found in other countries. In particular, it involves a quota system, which makes it mandatory for employers to categorize some employees as low-performers, who will then face possible termination. In this regard, the Korean government’s policy is tied to a larger goal of expanding labor flexibility – beginning in the public sector but with the intention of expanding it to the private sector in the future.

The striking workers understand their fight as being a front in a broader struggle against the government and capital’s attempt to ride out the current economic crisis and protect business interests through further liberalization and privatization of the public sector as well as reform of the labor market to lower wages and make jobs more precarious.


The fight over framing

The government and the conservative media have tried to paint the striking workers as part of a high-paid labor aristocracy merely seeking to protect their own self-interest. The government has also labeled the railway workers’ strike – the central force of the industrial action – illegal on the grounds that the introduction of the PRP system is not directly related to workers’ conditions and therefore outside the scope of issues that can legally be the subject of industrial action according to Korean law. Railway union leaders are facing the prospect of disciplinary actions and criminal charges.

To these claims, the KPTU and its affiliates have tried to make clear that their fight is not about getting more pay (in fact there is a drive among KPTU members to return incentive money paid out by the government to public institutions that implement the PRP system), but about keeping the public sector in public hands for public interest. They are also dealing with the legal threats with stride; this is not the first time they have experienced such intimidation.

In the framing fight, the workers seem to be winning. Public support for the strike has been tremendous with citizens posting support messages in public spaces and on social media. Moreover, despite the government’s insistence on treating the railway strike as illegal, the National Labor Relations Commission has recognized its legality.


Expanding Solidarity

Truck Workers Alliance announcing their plans to strike starting October 10; Signs read: "Safety for citizens! Rights for Truck Workers!"

Part of the reason for the public support is the growing public anger against the government, which continues to ignore the suffering of the most disenfranchised and drive forward policies in a manner that makes a mockery of democracy. Most recently, the death of the farmer Baek Nam-gi, who was hit by a water cannon during a protest last year, and the government’s attempt to evade responsibility through misrepresentation of the cause of his death has aroused a new wave of public outrage. KPTU, particularly its striking members at Seoul National University Hospital where Baek was treated, is making a concerted effort to use the strike protests and other actions to support the struggle of the bereaved family and farmers’ groups to demand justice for Baek.

As the strike enters its third week, owner-operator truck drivers, also members of KPTU, are also planning a national strike to begin on October 10. They oppose government deregulation of the trucking transport market, and the core issues are the same. Deregulation will drive transport rates down and lead to fiercer competition between truck drivers – ultimately resulting in practices like overloading and speeding that threaten public safety. The truck drivers are fighting for regulations.

The government has promised an even more severe crackdown on the truck drivers, who as ‘self-employed’ owner-drivers are denied trade union rights under Korean law. The strike, if it can stand up to government repression, is expected to have a massive economic impact as it will involve major slowdowns in both rail and road freight transport. It thus has the potential to be a truly powerful show of strength against the brutal and undemocratic government and the corporate interests it serves. But it also calls for the demanding and rewarding task of deepening and building enduring solidarity among diverse sectors of workers.


By Wolsan Liem, Director of International and Korean Peninsula Affairs of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU)


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