MAC: Mines and Communities

Steel in the soul: call for solidarity with workers fighting POSCO

Published by MAC on 2006-09-06

Steel in the soul: call for solidarity with workers fighting POSCO

6th September 2006

One trade unioonist has been killed, and many others injured, by police during protests against working conditions at a steel plant in Pohang, South Korea. The owner, POSCO, is among the six largest - and most profitable - steel companies in the world. Most of the workers are employed on sub-contracts, thus enabling the company to wash its hands of responsiblity for the demeaning conditions under which they labour.

A study of heavy metal contamination in the country's nine mining regions has revealed unacceptably high levels of cadmium in agricultual produce. However, since these are "only" locally-consumed, the authorities appear to dismiss the dangers.

Solidarity with South Korean trade unionists

Anna Pha, The Guardian (Australia)

6th September 2006

POSCO is one of the largest and most profitable steel and construction companies in the world and a major corporate player in South Korea. Its workforce in Pohang are fighting for better working conditions, higher wages, secure employment and to be treated with dignity. In the struggle so far one worker has been killed by police, more than 200 injured, hundreds have been detained and 63 union members are still being held in jail. The workers are members of the local union branch of the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Union (KFCITU). Over 90 percent of them work through a series of sub contractors on a daily basis. This pyramid system of subcontracting is used by POSCO to distance itself from taking responsibility for its workforce and drive down wages and conditions.

The workers in Pohang are lower paid than comparable workers in South Korea, 10-11 hour work days are common, six days a week with no entitlements to paid sick or annual leave. They are only paid for the time they are actually on the job.

On July 1, they began strike action in support of a 15 percent wage rise, a five–day week, penalty rates for Saturday work and for better conditions. They want to be treated with dignity — at present there is one portable toilet per 500 workers and lack of washing facilities. Other demands include direct talks with POSCO and permanent employment with full entitlements.

On July16, during a peaceful, legal demonstration organised by the KFCITU, police attacked participants, using batons and metal shields. According to witnesses, police repeatedly beat Ha Jeung Keun, a 42-year-old member of the Pohang local union, on the head with their metal shields. Ha Jeung Keun died on August 1, as a result of the beatings.

The union and the family of Ha Jeung Keun have asked the government to launch a full and impartial investigation on the circumstances leading to his death, fully punish those responsible for his death, and to sufficiently compensate his family. So far the police and government have failed to take any responsibility for the death or carry out an independent investigation.

On July 19, during a demonstration coordinated by the Kyonggido Branch of the umbrella union body, KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions), close to 100 family members of the union marched towards POSCO headquarters in an attempt to see their husbands, fathers, and sons; however, the riot police forcibly stopped their peaceful march and a confrontation between the police and the family members took place. As a result one of the wives of the union members was hurt and immediately hospitalised. At the time the doctors raised concerns about the status of her unborn child and advised her to be careful. Unfortunately she lost her child as a result of the riot police's actions. The union, along with a number of women's groups, has launched a complaint at the Human Rights Committee. The Committee is one of seven UN-linked human rights bodies.

The struggle has never let up. POSCO brought in scabs and was met with strong resistance from union members. Several thousand workers occupied the building. Police were again used to violently remove them and 2200 were arrested.

On August 16, a legal and peaceful demonstration by over 1000 members of the Pohang local union to protest the death of Ha Jeung Keun was met with more police violence. The police blocked their peaceful march, which was heading towards National Police headquarters. Some of the union members wore funeral dress and held photos of Ha Jeung Keun. Unable to proceed further, the union chose to conduct a sit-down demonstration on the streets of Seoul. The riot police responded by arresting many of them. The riot police forcibly arrested 736 union members, including key leaders of the KCTU, the Korean Democratic Labour Party and the KFCITU. More than 200 workers suffered injuries.

Throughout the strike, the government's actions have been to violently stop the strike in order to protect the interests of POSCO. The workers have returned to work as POSCO has agreed to discussions, but the struggle is far from over. They hold weekly demonstrations.

In one such demonstration the violence became so bad that even the Pohang citizens who were witnessing the confrontation attempted to intervene on behalf of the union members. The police response was to beat the Pohang citizens as well.

On August 27, the struggle was taken to Busan, just prior to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Asia Pacific Regional Meeting which is being hosted by South Korea, despite the government's brutal repression of workers and trade unions contrary to ILO Conventions.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has called for two national rallies to protest against the police violence, the government repression against the KFCITU, and to call for the government to accept full responsibility for the death of Ha Jeung Keun.

"Your support is critical to put international pressure against the South Korean Government", the KCTU said in a statement on the struggle. The unions are also seeking financial support.


Send a protest letter (sample below)
Send to:

President Roh Moo Hyun at the Blue House:
fax: 2-770-1690 (Fax) or

Copy should be sent to the Minister of Labour

Minister Kwon Ki-Hong
fax: 2-503-9772 or
e-mail at

Also send copies to

Lee Changgeun
International Director
Korean Confederation of Trade Unions
fax: 2-2635-1134
e-mail: Web-site:

Lee Jin-sook
International Director
Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions
fax: 2-843-1436

Sample Letter:

Dear President Roh:

On behalf of the __________, I am writing to express our outrage at the violent repression faced by the members of the Pohang local union of the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Union (KFCITU), KCTU.

According to the KFCITU, the Pohang local union launched a strike on July 1, 2006 for a 15% increase in wages, five-day workweek, and better and safe working conditions. During and following the strike the union has continued to conduct a series of actions, including a nine-day sit-down demonstration at POSCO headquarters, candle light vigils, visits to the National Assembly, distribution of union strike literature, and rallies. However, it is our understanding that rather than trying to objectively mediate to resolve the strike in an equitable fashion, your government has chosen to send in thousands of riot police to violently stop the union from conducting legal and peaceful actions.

The police violence has resulted in tragic consequences. Over 200 have been injured. Some are still seeking medical attention. One union member, Ha Jeung Keun has died as a result of his injuries. According to witnesses the police repeatedly beat Ha Jeung Keun on the head with their metal shields. In addition, a wife of a union member miscarried due to a confrontation with the police when she and other family members conducted a peaceful march to see their husbands, fathers, and sons who were conducting a sit-down demonstration at POSCO headquarters.

The police actions are unacceptable and we fully denounce the use of any violence used by the police to stop the union from attempting to exercise its fundamental labour rights. We strongly urge you to launch a full and impartial investigation into the series of violent acts conducted by the police. In addition, we urge your government to punish those responsible for the deaths of Ha Jeung Keun and fully compensate his family for their tragic loss.

We would like to point out that your government's actions and the specific violent attacks by your government against the KFCITU contravene the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948) and 98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949).

These instruments are considered fundamental human rights and although South Korea did not ratify them it has an obligation arising from its membership in the ILO to respect and enforce the principles, which are the subject of these conventions. We find it ironic that your government would engage in anti-union activities that contradict ILO conventions particularly since your government is hosting the ILO Asia Pacific Regional Meeting this month. These actions clearly show that your government has very little respect for the ILO conventions and thus, does disservice to dishonor "the spirit" of the ILO.

In order for your government qualify to hold the ILO ARM, we believe you should immediately release those arrested as a result of the police's brute force to end the strike. Your government should also call the police to rescind the arrest warrants of union members who are "in hiding" as a result of the strike. More importantly, we strongly urge you to stop all forms of violence against trade unionists when they exercise their fundamental right to organise, to strike, and to collective bargaining. We will continue to monitor the situation until this matter is resolved.

Sincerely ..........................................................

Heavy metal contamination found in S. Korea's nine mining regions: gov't

Seoul, Sept. 5 (Yonhap News)

High levels of heavy metals, including lead and cadmium, have been detected in agricultural goods from South Korea's nine mining regions, government officials said Tuesday.

The testing conducted by the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) in 44 areas nationwide, has revealed that eight areas near closed mines were found to have a higher-than-permitted concentration of cadmium in soil, water and agricultural goods.

One region had more lead than allowed by the government.

Of the high metal concentration discovered this time, the most serious involved rice that had 3.51 ppm levels of cadmium, which is far higher than the legally permitted 0.2 ppm.

The government picked the areas out of 936 regions adjacent to closed mines that had been screened once before during the 1992-2004 period.

Inspectors screened for such heavy metals as lead, cadmium, copper, mercury and arsenic during the examination. They also checked grains and vegetable like rice and cabbages that are most frequently consumed by the populace.

The KFDA and the agriculture ministry said the government will buy and destroy all the grains and vegetables being raised in the regions. It said that people will be advised not to raise more agricultural goods in the cited areas for the time being.

Authorities said they could not reveal the exact locations of the nine areas, but said none of the agricultural produce raised there have reached the general market and said the affected areas were very small.

"About 109 hectares of farmland have been determined to have been contaminated in the latest screening, which is 0.006 percent of the 1.82 million hectares used to grow produce as of 2005," said Lee Yang-ho, a spokesman for the agriculture ministry.

"They have been raised for local consumption only," he said.

Others said that more detailed tests are planned for the nine regions to determine the extent of the contamination. Tests will cover medical checkups for the inhabitants. Experts said that even if people had consumed the produce, the chances of people getting sick remained remote.

The government plans to set clearer guidelines for heavy metal residual levels for the top 10 agricultural products consumed by the people by the end of the year. At present the government only maintains this rule for rice.

Heavy lead contamination can occur near former mines through rainfall and underwater reservoirs causing the contents of tunnels or quarries to spill out into the surrounding landscape.

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