By Tim Shorrock | Originally published on In These Times
Over the past few weeks, thousands of South Korean transport workers have gone on strike to protest against government “reform” proposals that would make it easier for employers to fire workers, weaken seniority protections won through collective bargaining and privatize some state-owned industries.
The strikes, and the South Korean government’s fierce crackdown on labor, have generated an unprecedented response from global unions over what they see as clear-cut violations of workers’ rights to freedom of association.
“This has become a challenge to the whole international community and is enormously damaging to the Korean government’s international reputation,” Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), told In These Times.
In Washington, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is having “frequent meetings” with South Korea’s ambassador to discuss his concerns over the situation in Korea, said Cathy Feingold, the federation’s top foreign affairs officer. “We’re very involved.”
The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which includes a clause designed to protect labor rights, “is another hook” U.S. unions might use to assist their Korean allies, Feingold said. The protections in that pact, including freedom of association, can be enforced through trade sanctions and fines, but are rarely used.
The strikes pose one of the biggest crises in South Korean labor since the 1980s, when workers seized on the country’s democratization to create one of Asia’s most dynamic labor movements. In the aftermath of the democratic revolution in 1987, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was born out of independent organizing efforts that had been stifled for years in heavy industry, automobiles, transportation and shipbuilding. It is now the second largest union federation in the country.
The latest actions began on October 10, when more than 7,000 owner-operators in trucking joined a national strike against the government’s plan for deregulation of the trucking transport market. The conservative government of President Park Geun-hye responded by declaring the strike illegal, and her transportation minister called the walkout “an act of betrayal” of the nation.
On day one of the strike, more than 4,000 riot police surrounded truckers massed in front of freight depots, including the “New Port” complex in the southern industrial city of Busan, the truckers’ union said. Fifty-five activists were arrested and five injured, the union added. The Yonhap news agency reported that the South Korean military mobilized soldiers to replace striking truck drivers, effectively transforming them into scabs.
The strikers belong to the “Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division” of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) known as TruckSol. Wol-san Liem, the KPTU’s director of international and Korean Peninsula affairs, said that the government responded like it did because of the truckers’ “potential power” as well as their “precarious status as independent contractors.” The truckers’ union is part of the larger KCTU.
Working conditions for Korean truck drivers are dismal.
“They face unreasonable schedules, long hours, multiple levels of subcontracting, and low rates that put them in a really difficult place,” Liem said. “The pressures force them to speed, overload and drive at night for long hours—disastrous to health and family life and also dangerous to other road users.”
She added that problems are compounded because drivers who own their trucks are treated as independent contractors and denied the rights to form and join unions, collectively bargain and strike.
“This means they don’t have legal trade union rights,” Liem said. While it’s not illegal for owner-operators to “collectively refuse to work,” she added, “the government and conservative media try to paint the strike as illegal and our members as a violent mob.”
The truckers’ strike is the latest event in an autumn of industrial actions launched by Korean unions. In late September, other KPTU transport affiliates began a general strike against the government’s imposition of performance-related pay and a termination system. Those actions will supposedly align the Korean economy with international practices but in fact provide tools for employers to easily get rid of excess and militant workers.
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On October 12, as the truckers’ strike heated up in Korea, unions from around the world joined in a global day of solidarity with TruckSol and the Korean strikers. In San Francisco, a protest at the South Korean Consulate was led by United Public Workers for Action, a coalition that seeks to unite workers in the public sector. The campaign can be followed on Twitter at hashtag #KoreanStrikeforJustice.
The global labor movement, the ITF’s Cotton said, will “continue to give every support to workers in South Korea until the government starts to respect international law and enters meaningful negotiations with the unions.”
This article was originally published on In These Times.
Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who grew up in Tokyo and Seoul and has been writing about Korea since the 1970s. He posts frequently on Twitter at @TimothyS.