Korean Labor: Protest by Suicide

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Sang-Hwan Jang

IN JANUARY 2003, Dalho Bae, a 47-year-old worker at Doosan Heavy Industry Co., committed suicide by burning himself. On October 17 Juik Kim, the chief of the metal labor union branch at Hanjin Heavy Industry Co., a ship-constructor, committed suicide after a 129 day-siege on the jeep-crane.

On the 23rd of October, Haenam Lee, the chief of the chapter of the irregular laborers’ union at Saewontech Co., burned himself. He died on November 17. And on the 26th, Yongseok Lee, the chief of Gwangju-Chonnam branch of labor union at Korea Labor Welfare Corporation, also committed suicide. He died on October 31.

The suicides of labor union leaders were protests against the repression of the labor movement by companies and the government. Committing suicide for social issues has special meaning in Korea. In 1970, Jun Taeil, a 22-year-old cloth designer, committed suicide by burning himself, to protest the violation of labor law by many small cloth manufacturing sweatshops.

His shocking action stirred up people’s interest in labor problems that had developed during the industrialization period of 1960s. It marked the beginning of a new democratic labor movement not controlled by the government.  

Seizure of Wages

The present issues are companies’ over-use of civil lawsuits for compensation of damages by labor union strikes, and the “temporary attachment” of laborers’ wages. Temporary attachment means that the company seizes part of employees’ wages temporarily on the permission of the court, and does not pay full wages to them.

Responding to labor union strikes, Korea companies have used the compensation suits rather than labor law procedures. Companies have put labor unions’ funds and the salaries of their leaders and their ordinary members under temporary attachment, before the companies get the court decisions for the suits.

Korean labor law, of course, protects the right to go on strike. Article 3 of [Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act) prescribes, “An employer shall not claim damages against a trade union or workers, in case where he/she has suffered damage because of collective bargaining or in industrial action under this Act.”

But the courts have decided that “illegal strikes” should not be recognized as protected by this law. The difference between a legal and an illegal strike is superficial: If a labor union violates government procedures even in a trivial way, their actions become illegal.

For example, the government authorities can intervene in a dispute between a company and its laborers and decide an arbitration award. If unions do not accept it and strike in response, they become unintentional violators of the law. In general, labor leaders are firmly convinced that labor law must protect labor union’s peaceful strike, and they do not want to exercise violence.  

In the past, companies’ compensation suits were confined to the labor unions and their administrative staff, but that has now been extended to regular union members, their families, and worst of all, their personal guarantors. The scope of temporary attachment has been extended to laborers’ salaries, real estate, cars and, worst of all, deposit money for the lease of their house.

At the same time, the amount of temporary attachment has increased, in one case to a high of 10.2 billion won  (about $9.6 million) against a union leader. These abuses of compensation suit and temporary attachment resulted not only in the psychological despair of union members, but also in the destruction of laborers’ families.

The turning point came when the Korea Electric Power Companies, which are formally privatized but in reality managed by the government, dared to take civil suit for compensation for strike damages and secured temporary attachment against staff and average members in the spring of 2002. This was during the government of the “reformer” ex-president Kim Daejoong.

The Companies took temporary attachment of 14 billion won ($11.7 million) to union staff; 14.5 billion won ($12.1 million) from the union’s fund; 18.2 billion won ($15.2 million) from 3,172 members. And they demanded the compensation of 9.1 billion won ($7.6 million) from union members and staff. After that time private companies, encouraged by the aggressive anti-union actions of the government, also abused the process of compensation suit and temporary attachment.

An investigation by the KCTU (Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, with about 700,000 members) found that the total amount of compensation suits and temporary attachment, about 119 billion won ($99.2 million) at 38 companies as of June 2002, increased sharply to 205.6 billion won ($171.3 million) at 50 companies on January 2003.

The dead leader, Juik Kim, received at most 120 thousand won (less than $100) a month at the point of his suicide. His monthly average salary had been about 1.5 million won ($1250). His company pushed through many layoffs as a weapon to repress the strike. These conditions compelled him to commit suicide.

Labor’s Long Struggle

The practice of dealing with labor problems not through labor law, but under civil law, means the negation of labor law. The cruel behavior of capitalists in Korea impairs the spirit of the constitution and the intention of labor law to protect basic workers’ rights.

The working class of Korea narrowly achieved the right of independent organization and democratic movement after the Great Uprising for Democratization of June 1987, which ended military dictatorship and introduced a free vote in presidential elections. Prior to that, independent labor movement activists were labeled as “reds” and severely repressed.

Immediately after the June Great Uprising, the Great Laborer Struggle sprang forth and continued about three months, for the right to organize independent trade unions and collective bargaining. But now, the accomplishments of these long-fought struggles are in danger of collapse.

Structural Background

What caused this rise in labor suicides? I think the Korean economy had skipped the stage of the Keynesian welfare state.

The state-led industrialization policy by the developmental state of president Park Junghee dismantled the remains of feudalistic social relations, nourished the growth of a new capitalist class, and repressed the working class.

It did not act in response to market failures, but instead created the market instead. In short Korea’s new economy started from the stage of (free market) liberalism, and not a Keynesian policy.

During the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, labor unions were controlled by the Korea Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). Unions were not the laborers’ voluntary organization, but rather an agent to control workers. The working class of Korea barely achieved the right of independent organization and democratic movement after the Great Uprising for Democratization on June 1987, as noted earlier.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the government of Korea began to introduce various neoliberal policies–deregulation of financial markets; loosening requirements for layoff of labor, etc. The result was the economic crisis of 1997.

To overcome the crisis, the government of Korea, pushed by IMF lending conditions, adopted various neoliberal policies–bailout of financial firms with public funds, amounting to 160 trillion won (about 130 billion dollars); deregulating the financial sector; restructuring firms (lowering debt ratio for chaebol big firms, etc); deregulating the labor market (legalizing layoffs and widely introducing contingent workers, etc); and restructuring the public sector (privatization and reducing government sector workers).

In restructuring the public sector, the government pushed the privatization of public firms and dismissed about 15% of its total work force.

At Hanjin Heavy Industry Co., the owner Cho family extracted a high rate of profit as dividend. Under that burden, the wage of Hanjin laborers remained low compared to other ship-building companies.

As the result of labor market deregulation, more than half of the total labor classes of Korea are now irregular laborers. They are paid about half of the average wage of regular laborers. The working class cannot endure this worsening of their standard of living and basic rights.

Public sector labor unions protested the privatization policy and massive layoffs. Unions of irregular and contingent laborers protested the discrimination against irregular laborers and demanded the same pay and right as regular laborers. [See “The Crisis of Contingent Labor,” an interview with Korean activist Ae Lim Yun, ATC 109, March-April 2004–ed.]

Repression and Protest

It was to repress labor protest that the government and capitalist class of Korea turned to the application of the civil law for labor problems, imposing civil and criminal liability for collective bargaining and strike action.

At the political level, laborers have been disappointed at the new government of president Roh Moohyun, which rapidly transformed labor policy to the conservative line.

After winning the presidential election, Roh Moohyun government clarified “12 National Policy Agendas.” This initial policy of “Industrial relations of social integration” was a step forward compared to the policy of the precedent governments. So workers anticipated a politics of “hope,” on the basis that the new government’s labor policy would promote participation and tolerance.  

But the ruling classes–the chaebols, and conservative media owners–heavily attacked the new government’s labor policy. Foreign financial capital joined in the attack, threatening withdrawal of capital. The minister of finance and economy and many government officials also seemed to be conservatively oriented.

Eventually, president Roh promised the delegates of chaebols that he would try to make Korea “a good place for enterprise” at an informal gathering for discussion with them on May 12 in Washington, when he was on an official visit to the United States. After that, relations between president Roh and chaebols arrived at an amicable settlement.

President Roh commanded government officials to respond aggressively to the strikes at Chohung Bank and the Korean National Railroad in June 2002. The government issued police powers in response to the strike of Korean National Railroad laborers. It punished the core members of strike, and took compensation suit of 9.7 billion won for the loss.

The government of president Roh arrested 132 laborers during the eight months (198 on an annual base) after its inauguration, more than under president Kim Young Sam (126 per year) and under president Kim DaeJoong (178 per year).

To sum up, the “hope” of laborers changed rapidly to “despair.” Perhaps that is one factor accelerating labor suicides. This is the background of the recent tragedies. These suicides can be interpreted as the expression of a great class struggle similar to that of the developed countries during the 1930s Great Depression.

What is to be Reformed?

The KCTU and KDLP (Korea Democratic Labor Party) demand that companies withdraw all compensation suits and temporary attachments. They demand a revision of the Trade Union Act: Article 3 must be revised by a provision that “Employers cannot demand compensation for physical damage by trade union collective bargaining or strike, with the exception of the physical destruction of factory and damages from murder and theft, etc.”

In fact, it is totally irrational that laborers must compensate companies for the damage resulting from stopping production by strike, even if that strike is not recognized as legal. If this irrational rule would be thoroughly enforced, the laborers could not go on strike in fact.

It is exactly this effect that the capitalists support, when they demand the maintenance of compensation suit and temporary attachment for strike damages. The damage of production stoppage by strikes is virtually the only method or weapon the laborers have against the employer.

So the law and related institutions must be radically reformed, to prevent the tragedies and to protect the basic right of laborers. First, the sphere of legitimate dispute must be extended (as also recommended in 1994 by the Committee for Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining of the International Labor Organization) to strikes to protect workers’ rights and to change government policy.

At the same time, the categories of “essential public workshop” and the institution of governmental arbitration must be minimized. Compulsory arbitration and the arbitration applied by only one side must be abolished.  

Second, civil liability of laborers for illegal dispute behavior must be loosened, as suggested above. (to change the paraphrase) Third, the current institution of temporary attachment must be reformed: to limit the liability to the labor union; to limit the amount, excluding the amount necessary for laborers’ livelihood and the maintenance of the union.

This reform would bring Korean law into accordance with almost all developed countries, where the objects of compensation suit are limited to labor union or its staff, and liability is also limited to criminal destructive action. [Editors’ note: A partial exception to this international norm are state laws in the United States, imposing massive penalties on striking public workers, such as the New York Taylor Law, as well as provisions of the federal Taft-Hartley Act.]

Fourth, the current institution of personal guarantor for the employee must be reformed. The liability of personal guarantors must be confined to the damage from the criminal behaviors of the employee, such as burglary, theft, fraud, etc.

Labor Mobilizing

The KCTU held an emergency congress on October 31, 2003, and declared plans for big demonstrations and general strikes: a four-hour walkout on November 6 and a general strike on November 12. On November 9, more than 50,000 members of the KCTU crowded in downtown Seoul, where firebombs were thrown at riot police for the first time in about two years.

On November 12, tens of thousands of union workers from the manufacturing and public sectors staged a one-day general strike across the nation, protesting against the government’s labor policy. The KCTU said more than 150,000 of its members joined the one-day walkout, while the Labor Ministry put the number at 44,000.

During the strike, laborers’ demonstrations took place in 20 cities across the country, despite an announcement by police forbidding street rallies. These actions will enhance labor’s further protest against the unbelievable cruelty of the capitalists and stimulate the reform and revision of labor law.

But the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI, the organization of chaebols, big capitalists) opposes the revision of labor law, and the government of Korea also is reluctant to reform the law. The government suggested regulation of the use of compensation suit for damage and provisional attachment (for example, creating the limit of amount). But the KCTU argued that this would be misused for the legalization of the compensation suit and temporary attachment.

What was worse, a chief of a local police office condemned suicides, as a planned plot of labor leaders. This aroused public anger, and the government had to fire him. But president Roh also told to the related ministers, at the cabinet meeting on November 4, “We must make sure that the worker burning himself must not be used as the tool of struggle to accomplish the goal in the present democratic period.”

In response to the violent rally on November 9, president Roh ordered his secretaries to take strong measures to discourage future violence. The prosecution decided to summon KCTU’s six leaders, including its head Dan Byoung-ho.

Meanwhile, collective bargaining between Hanjin Heavy Industries Co. and national metal workers union reached an agreement on November 14. The company conceded greatly and accepted almost all union demands: the withdrawal of civil and criminal suit, dismissal of the responsible managing director, and reinstatement of the dismissed union leaders.

The company’s concession was compelled by the appeal of many subcontractors who suffered from production stoppages, and the threat of shipowners to withdraw their shipbuilding contract.

But I think this is no more than a temporary concession. In general, the prospect will not be bright; facing persisting stagnation, companies are squeezed between investor demand for high profit from the investors and labor unions’ demands.

The conflict between the laborers and the greedy capitalists in Korea will not be settled in the near future. Actions of solidarity with the working class of Korea are required.

Sang-Hwan Jang is a Visiting professor at the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Professor of Economics at Gyeongsang National University, Korea. He is a past chair of the policy committee of the Korea Democratic Labor Party. This article was presented at a Seminar at Labor Relations and Research Center, UMass Amherst, November 17, 2003.

ATC 111, July-August 2004