MAC: Mines and Communities

Solidarity with South Korean trade unionists

Published by MAC on 2006-09-06

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.

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