Korean workers and citizens have been on the streets of Seoul and other provinces of South Korea in November after Korean Confederation of Trade Unions(KCTU), one of the largest federations of trade unions in South Korea called for a month of general strike during November. KCTU gave a call for the strike in the wake of continuing strike by rail and public sector workers for more than a month. While the general strike is invoked against the corrupt administration of Park Guen-Hye and has called the the president to step down, the ongoing strikes and rallies are essentially against massive repression of labour by Capital and the State. In July 2015, labour leader Han Sang-Gyun was imprisoned for 5 years after leading a successful strike. On November 12th marking the National Labour Day, over 1 million workers and citizens rallied against the state.
Following is an interview with visiting dignitaries from KCTU, Comrade Sik Hwa Jung, worker in Hyundai Auto Components, Comrade Sang Soo Haa, worker in Kia Motors and Comrade Kyun Ok Woo, KCTU labour official on the conditions of workers in Korea and the rallying of the mass against state repression.
Q: What are the reasons for the ongoing strikes and rallies in Korea?
There are two kinds of strikes happening in Korea right now. Strikes in factories against capitalist exploitation and strike across the nation against the state.
At the factory level, the labour unions are fighting against the management on the wage systems. In Korea, we have collective bargaining every 2 years. In Automobile companies, we have 2 shifts of 10 hour work. We have been demanding 2 shifts of 8 hour work day with existing wages and no reduction of wages. If wages are decreased, then it is not possible for us to have basic lifestyle. Instead the companies want to reduce the work day by reducing the wages. The companies are also pushing for wage peak system and wage flexibility system, which is being resisted by us.
At the national level, there has been nepotism and corruption scandals surrounding the current President. She is surrounded by shamans who are pushing their own interests. She does not work for the welfare of the common man and this has made people very angry. The ongoing national strike is not just that of workers but students, parents and everyone is participating in the strike. In 1987, 1 million people gathered which pushed our country towards democracy. This is the biggest rally since then and our demands are simple: ‘Step down president’.
Q: South Korea is seen as the success of industralised development in Asia. Has this development helped the common citizen?. If so, how do we see the ongoing protests against the perception of success?
Due to the industrialization process, the living conditions of the workers is higher than before. For some workers, such as regular workers, it is much better. Even for contract workers, whose wage is 4 times lesser than the regular workers, the conditions of life are good. However, this is no longer enough to support a family due to rise of costs, especially in education. In 1970s and 80s, a worker could sustain a family on a single income. It is no longer the case. Education and cost of education is one of the biggest factor. Privatized edudcation system is expensive but is necessary to go to university. It costs $1500-$3000 per month for a student to get educated.
That is why the ongoing corruption scandals against the current president is making the people angry. When her shaman entered the university , she started changing the power of authority in university administration to get her own daughter into university. People see these moves as making it impossible for children of ordinary citizens to enter university, and there are rumours of secret administration. Thus people do not see democratic governance and are frustrated.
Q: What is the role of KCTU in the ongoing struggles?
KCTU has been working on two main demands, Minimum wage of 10$ per hour for all workers, Shape a progressive, revolutionary labour policy in Korea. We have conducted several large protests and general strikes in the last 1 year. Our leader was imprisoned. In the last few months, insurance company workers organized a general strike. Now the railway workers are on strike. KCTU decided to call for a month long protests and strikes in support of the ongoing strikes. November 12th is National Labour Day in commemoration of self-immolation of a worker in the backdrop of deplorable working conditions 45 years ago. We called for nationwide rally in which more than 1 million people participated. Now, in the latest protests, we hear of 1 million and 100 thousand people participating.
Q: How are the state and private companies responding to these rallies?
The Government is moving from defensive to offensive and taking tough stance on workers. They are against labour unions. The companies are moving from offensive to defensive against the labour unrest. They were talking of flexible wage system, performance based wage system and flexible firing policies. Initially, the companies were only talking to yellow unions and closed unions and repressing union officials from KCTU. Due to the ongoing struggles, the management is now trying to talk to us and trying to reach a conclusion.
* The title ‘Strike first, bargain later’ is taken from the articles which have documented Korean working class struggles of KCTU.