On October 20, at least half a million workers in South Korea – from construction, transportation, services and other industries – will quit their jobs in a one-day general strike. The strike will be followed by mass protests in urban centers and rural farmlands, culminating in a national all-people mobilization in January 2022. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the country’s largest union with 1.1 million members, organizes these mobilizations in a broad front with the urban poor and farmers of South Korea.
The 15 detailed demands of the strike can be summarized as falling into three basic areas:
- Abolish “irregular work” (part-time, temporary or contract work with little or no benefits) and extend labor protections to all workers;
- Empower workers to make decisions about economic restructuring in times of crisis;
- Nationalize key industries and socialize basic services like education and housing.
South Korea today: overworked and precarious
Today, South Korea ranks third Business hours and as of 2015 he was third in death at work between member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). More than 40 percent of all workers are considered “irregular workers. “As in the United States, many of these irregular workers work in the odd-job economy, beholden to the applications of the tech giants.
With an economy and society dominated by business conglomerates known as chaebol, South Koreans face increasingly bleak prospects. High 10 percent of employees declared 45 percent of total income in 2016, real estate speculation led to a housing crisis, and privatization in education and health care increase disparities. As South Korea suffers the backlash from the effects of COVID-19 on the global economy, these crises have only worsened.
Behind the brilliant electronics and the cars that chaebols like Samsung, Hyundai or LG are known for lie countless stories of exploitation. Earlier this year, the cleaning staff of the LG Twin Towers (the head office of the company’s skyscraper) camped outside the company building for 136 days during the colder winter months to protest against layoffs and abusive working conditions. LG hired thugs to pour water into the workers’ tents while they slept. A worker exclaimed, “What have we done wrong?” Imagine this giant conglomerate coming and flooding your room. Can you sleep ?! “
Operation and hazardous conditions are consistent across all industries. Coal miners at Korea Coal, a state-owned coal mining company, suffer from health problems from inhaling coal dust and overwork. A coal miner recounted the plight of irregular workers: “The government has cut the workforce in half, so our unit now has to do the work of two units. So everyone is sick. There is no one here who is not sick. Our salaries must increase but they have remained the same. We work the same as regular workers, but we don’t even get half the salary.
How we got there: demystifying the rise of South Korea
Often hailed as a “miracle on the Han river, The history of economic development in South Korea has always had its winners and losers. Forty years of right-wing dictatorships backed by the United States set the political conditions for the growth of South Korean industry. This story is for another time, but a general description always paints a chilling picture: participation in the Vietnam War, family separation and the sale of children by the transnational adoption system, the state management of a sex industry intended to occupy American troops, and decades of martial law and anti-communist state terror all played their part in the rise of the chaebol. The confrontation between labor and capital brewing in South Korea today is another chapter in this bloody story.
Since the dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan in the 1980s, neoliberal reforms gradually removed South Korea’s protectionist policies, opening up its markets and resources to foreign investors at the expense of workers. In the mid-90s, South Korea received a rush of $ 100 billion in foreign loans. When the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit, the economy quickly deflated with the withdrawal of foreign capital. As national bankruptcy looms, South Korea has been forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help.
But the IMF loan came with conditions: Structural adjustment policies dismantled hard-earned workers’ protections, state-owned enterprises were privatized, and domestic markets were opened up to foreign capital, who returned to devour cheap Korean assets. In 2004, up to 44% of South Korea’s total market capitalization was owned by foreigners, mainly from USA, EU and Japan.
The 1997 crisis and its aftermath ultimately led to massive layoffs, the “irregularity” of South Korean workers and the doubling of poverty rates in a single decade. Despite an apparent democratic transition in the late 1980s, the South Korean people have no ownership over the South Korean economy. The average household’s debts amount to almost double their annual income. Sixty-four chaebols claim 84% of GDP, but only provide 10 percent of the jobs. In fact, the average South Korean has less say in government than American companies, which have the power under the 2007 US-Korea Free Trade Agreement to legally challenge laws they find unfavorable.
Taking back the future: South Koreans on strike
When half a million South Korean workers quit their jobs tomorrow, they will demand the abolition of all forms of “irregular” work. They will also demand an end to loopholes in labor laws that allow employers to deprive their employees of basic rights, such as the right to organize, access to benefits and workers’ compensation.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and a new effort by the government to build a ‘digital’ economy, workers are also demanding that future decisions on economic restructuring be jointly determined by workers and management. Workers are not just demanding that the government make changes for them; they are fighting for more power to determine these changes themselves.
They also demand their fair share. Perhaps the most mind-boggling demand by far is the desire to nationalize struggling industries that have laid off workers en masse – including the airline, auto and shipbuilding industries. After decades of austerity, the KCTU challenges the state to take responsibility and ensure housing, health care, elderly care, child care and education for all. His demands for social reforms include increasing public housing units from 5% to 50% of all available housing, making university preparatory classes free for all, and hiring at least one million social workers. to ensure free care for the elderly and children. for all families. “The government is using taxpayer money to bail out struggling businesses,” says Lee Jeong-hee, KCTU policy director. “He should play a bigger role in ensuring fairness and protecting ordinary people.”
South Korean workers see COVID-19 as a turning point. This ongoing pandemic has nearly stopped the flow of people and created bottlenecks in the global supply chain – and workers are worried about how the economic effects of the climate crisis and digital transformation of industries could leave them on the losing side of a new economy.
“In times of crisis, the forces that successfully meet the demands of the times will lead the new era,” says Lee. The demands of the KCTU go beyond improving conditions for its members – they are fighting for the power of workers as a class and demanding their share of the wealth they create. And for that, the workers expect to pay a heavy price. The South Korean state has already responded with preemption repression, imprisoning KCTU chairman Yang Kyung-soo and at least 30 other union organizers, according to Lee. As strikers quit their jobs, Lee expects government and business to respond, as they have done in the past, by jailing other union leaders and imposing fines and lawsuits on workers for their activities.
South Korean workers threw in the gauntlet and we should all pay close attention to it. While the dynamic at play in the KCTU strike is peculiar to Korea, the plight of precarious workers under the weight of neoliberalism is a global struggle. As trade union struggles rock Korea and the world this “Striketober”, opportunities present themselves to build an international class struggle to face the international exploitation of workers. Everywhere, the working masses are making history, demanding a different future.
American observers should not view the struggle in South Korea as a distant concern. The conditions facing South Korean workers today are the result of more than 70 years of capitalist development in the shadow of US military and financial hegemony. Given the imperialist position of the United States in the world economy and its long and violent history in Korea, the solidarity of American workers is especially important. When we asked how to support the KCTU from overseas, Lee asked us to spread the word. International spotlight can protect some workers from employer and government reprisals and advance workers’ demands.