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Posted : 2012-07-31 17:33
Updated : 2012-07-31 17:33

Assault on unions

How long should Seoul remain as labor repressor?

In the late 1980s, Korea’s labor movement began to blossom along with the nation’s democratization. That in turn gave rise to a new business called ``union-busting,” which disrupted legal union activities, including strikes, by dispatching hired thugs.

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed but the situation remains little changed. Early Friday morning, hundreds of helmeted, club- and steel pipe-wielding employees of a private security company raided striking unionists of SJM, a car parts maker in Ansan, south of Seoul, leaving about 30 workers injured, some seriously.

The security company, Contractus, conducted a similar operation at another auto component manufacturer, Mando Corp., almost simultaneously.

Right after breaking up the sit-ins, the two parts makers locked their factories unilaterally. According to unionists, police who stood nearby did little to stop the violent attacks by the private security workers.

The two incidents involving the same union-busting firm illustrate where the Lee Myung-bak administration’s labor policy stands as well as highlights how the nation’s democracy and rule of law has fallen to the ground. A factory lockout is legally allowed but only in limited and exceptional situations when unionists were about to destroy facilities or threaten normal business operations in other ways.

At both companies, however, the unions had just begun industrial action, a partial, peaceful walkout. There were no plausible or urgent reasons for the abrupt lockouts. Yet, one can see a pattern similar to what has happened at several other firms recently: When unionists begin to strike, management call on hired goons to forcefully dispel them and lock them out of factories, which in turn leads to prolonged industrial action and the company hires replacement workers who form new, company-kept unions.

It may be no coincidence the 1980s-style repression of unionism is being revived under the incumbent administration. While presiding over an emergency economic meeting last week, Lee said, ``There are no countries in the world (except Korea) where labor aristocrats stage strikes.” He was referring to the scheduled walkout of Hyundai Motor employees in protest of the notoriously long, almost inhumane, work hours and irregular employment practices of in-house subcontracting. ``How can workers who receive 90 million won ($75,000) a year think of striking,” he added.

True, motor workers’ wages are relatively high, but a wage level should be determined between capitalists and labor based on productivity, and not something that should be compared with other workers. It should never be a zero sum game among workers of different industries.

More importantly, industrial action is the legal right of unionized workers regardless of their wage levels, and not necessarily be limited to wages. President Lee should ask himself whether there is any country in the world (except Korea) that has a leader who raises the issue of his or her people exercising their legitimate rights.

Equally interesting in this regard is Contractus, which guarded Lee when he was a presidential candidate and has since been thriving despite its rampant exercise of violence, under protection from the law firm, Yeongpo, composed of Lee’s political allies hailing from his hometown. Coincidence?

It would be hasty defeatism if one gives up expecting fair law enforcement in this case. But it is hard not to feel that way under this administration.

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