On 18 October, south Korean workers walked off jobs and took to the streets, demanding better working conditions and job security and in defence of their ability to assemble and protest.
The strike was organised by the Korean Confederation of Trade unions (KCTU), south Korea’s largest trade union organisation with more than 1.1 million members. The umbrella group represents workers across society, from temporary school workers to car factory workers.
A planned half-million man march was hampered by a pre-emptive announcement of illegality by the authorities, under the guise of Covid-19 ‘safety’ laws. Long before Covid-19, however, assemblies of workers were facing suppression, arrests and violence from south Korean police, including the arrest of the movement’s leaders.
The current leader of the KCTU, Yang Kyung-soo is currently behind bars on charges of holding a gathering in breach of Covid-19 laws. He is the 13th leader in a row to be arrested for breaching various anti-union and anti-protest laws. The KCTU itself was a banned organisation until 1997, since it hadn’t received state ‘approval’.
Fighting a steep decline in living standards
The demands on the workers’ lips at the most recent demonstration were wide ranging, including the release of Yang and the reform of many aspects of work and social services, reflecting the growing anger at unacceptable and still worsening working conditions, a total lack of job security and a similar dearth of meaningful social provision.
Job security is an issue affecting many south Korean workers. Fifty percent are ‘precarious’ workers, holding basic or no contract, with no guaranteed hours, reduced wages compared to their contracted colleagues, and no healthcare or other company benefits. The strikers were demanding a repeal of the Irregular Workers Act, which opened the doors for private companies to hire and fire at will, with little or no responsibility towards staff.
Another demand was the nationalisation of key industries in times of crisis, avoiding layoffs and assuring access to utilities and transport for all; for the expansion of social care and the acquisition of social housing up to 50 percent (it currently stands at around 5 percent). The strikers also wanted to see full enforcement of the Labour Standards and Serious Accidents Punishment acts and the acts’ expansion to cover workplaces with fewer than five employees (meaning its terms would cover 3.5 million workers than at present).
The south Korean government recently ratified the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) conventions 87 and 98, which are supposed to protect the right to assembly and protest. In a fine example of the way that nothing is given to workers without struggle, however, it is refusing to observe these conventions until they are passed into law in April 2022. This following of the letter rather than the spirit of such laws shows just how unwilling capitalists everywhere are to allow workers even a modicum of free expression in a ‘free and democratic’ bourgeois state.
South Korea’s capitalist class is dominated by chaebol: huge, immensely wealthy companies that cover nearly every aspect of economic life, from manufacture (Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Lotte), utilities (SK group, GS group), and insurance (Samsung, Hanwa group).
These chaebol are owned by a tiny handful of individuals or families, concentrating all that wealth (and its attendant influence over the government) in a vanishingly small proportion of the population. Sixty-four chaebol between them account for 84 percent of south Korea’s GDP, despite employing just 11 percent on the workforce.
If met, the strikers’ demands would result in increased job security for workers, a better work-life balance, increased access to healthcare for precarious workers, and safer workplaces for all. South Korea is third in workplace deaths amongst OECD member countries – an indicator of how disposable their rulers consider workers’ lives to be.
An international struggle
Our Korean comrades are a hemisphere away, but their struggles are the same as ours. Their list of demands wouldn’t look out of place in a manifesto of a true socialist party in Britain.
Compare Korea’s ‘precarious’ workers with our zero-hour contracts and the underemployed. Compare south Korea’s chaebol to our monopolistic conglomerates. Compare both our dwindling stocks of social housing. Compare the slow death by a thousand cuts of our NHS to the fully private system in south Korea, which we are undoubtedly heading for, and where money equals medicine. Here in Britain too we face the steady erosion of trade-union rights and of the right to assemble and protest.
South Korean workers are organising to have their demands met. The will is there, the numbers are increasing, and so are the stakes.
We wish them every success in the coming battles and commit do doing everything we can to help the British working class organise itself for a similar fight-back against the onslaught of capital.