S. Korea workers bolder after student riots. Laborers demand fair share of nation's economic growth
Seoul — Labor unrest is one immediate consequence of democratization moves in South Korea. Many workers feel they have not received their fair share of the spectacular economic growth their country has enjoyed. They have been emboldened by the success of student-led demonstrations for democracy to make their own demands more insistent.
Lee Sung Chol is a skilled worker in an auto-parts factory who earns 220,000 won ($275) a month. There is no union in his factory of about 2,000 workers. ``Two years ago, we tried to form a union,'' he said. ``The management got wind of it, and locked us all in for the night. If 40 workers go to the Labor Ministry and register their desire to form a union, the demand will be accepted. So the management forcibly kept us from registering.... ''
How could management keep 2,000 workers from leaving the plant without employing physical violence? According to Mr. Lee, workers are still afraid of losing their jobs. Many of them have come from the countryside, and the alternative to a reasonably well-paying factory job is to be a hauler in the marketplace. One night's stay in the factory was apparently enough to convince Lee's co-workers that the time was not ripe to form a union.
But now, conditions are changing. Government statistics show that in the month since ruling party leader Roh Tae Woo made his dramatic call for direct presidential elections, 76 labor disputes erupted, compared with 34 in the previous year.
South Korea does have an anemic federation of labor unions, but really independent unions have not been permitted since Park Chung Hee's military government took power in a coup d''etat 26 years ago.
South Korea's huge conglomerates like Hyundai, Daewoo, and Samsung have consistently discouraged trade unions as they built up the nation's economy with an almost fanatic dedication to hard work, along with generous doses of government loans. Per capita income soared from the low hundreds to $2,000 today, and workers have shared in the prosperity.
But the human cost has been great, say observers like the Rev. Hwang Sang Keun, chaplain of the (Roman Catholic) Young Christian Workers' Movement. Korean workers have a reputation for being willing to put in more hours than almost anyone else on earth. Fr. Hwang says the reason workers put in these incredible hours is that it is the only way they can make ends meet.
Lee agrees. His work week is 74 hours long. ``Officially, we do not have to work more than eight hours a day, but I wouldn't be able to live if that was all I did. ... The company knows I'm a Christian, so it reluctantly allows me to go to church.... If it knew I belonged to the Young Christian Workers Movement, I'd probably be fired.''
No Suk Shik, a plant worker, was fired for that very reason. He worked for a Hyundai plant in Ulsan, where one day in June a security guard caught him leaving with a Christian Youth Workers' magazine. The firm claimed the magazine was subversive, and he was dismissed.
Women, particularly in the textile industry, are paid less and have to work harder than most men. Kim Myong Hi, who has been in the textile industry for over 10 years, says she is paid just 2,700 won (about $2.40) per day, and has to regularly work 80 hours per week.
``Of course wages are important,'' says Hwang.``But even more important is the sense of human dignity that a worker should have. Traditionally workers have been despised in Korea. It's very difficult to get a worker to have self-respect, to feel that he is worthy as an individual. That is really what our movement is trying to do.''