Since the election of Park Geun-hye, three labor activists and a unification activist have committed suicide. Another labor activist died while attending the binso of one of the laborers who took his own life.
A reader suggested I post about this, so I have. Not sure exactly what to say about it, though. Even leaving aside the fact that three of the suicides were officials in unions affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions—of which I’m not a huge fan—and the other was a member of the this group, I don’t really want to turn people taking their own lives out of dissatisfaction with the results of a democratic election into heroes.
That said, while there’s nothing the Park administration could ever do to win the support of the likes of the KCTU, there are things it could do to improve industrial morale. The Kyunghyang ran an editorial on the deaths, calling on the government to do something about companies suing unions over strikes. In the case of Hanjin Heavy Industries, the company dropped its suits against individual unionists, but still has a 15.8 billion won suit against the union itself. This despite the fact that the company agreed to drop its lawsuits when it reached an agreement with its union in November.
The mood at Hanjin has reportedly been quite dour even after the November agreement, in which the company withdrew its mass layoffs. The fact that the company seems to be moving its operations overseas might have something to do with it:
Another reinstated worker said, “After Hanjin constructed a shipyard in Subic Bay, Philippines in 2006, they have hardly obtained any orders for their Yeongdo shipyard even though the shipbuilding industry was prosperous. In 2010, they separated the design unit of the shipyard, which is its core unit.
All the reinstated workers feel that the company has no intention to operate the Yeongdo shipyard.” He continued, “The company has not acknowledged the apparent failures of management, and instead have blamed the workers claiming that the labor disputes have made it difficult to win orders. We expected for a better relationship with management when we were reinstated, but they’re neglecting the basics such as issuing ID cards and leaving us out in the cold.”
One of the more critical labor issues is the use—in some cases, illegally—of irregular workers and inhouse contractors, such as at Hyundai. The problem here, though, is that not only do the companies unenthusiastic about changing their hiring practices, the regular unions don’t seem particularly keen to help out irregular workers, either. And how you resolve this without scaring companies into moving their operations overseas, I don’t know.
President-elect Park apparently laid down the law during her meeting with major business heads yesterday (see English here), asking companies not to lay off workers. This reportedly even impressed the French. This was something I sort of expected—one of the first things her old man did after taking power was arrest 24 of Korea’s top businessmen just to let them know who was boss. Whether that sort of intimidation works as well in the globalized market of the 21st century, though, has yet to be seen.