By Spark correspondents
Over one thousand South Korean factory workers are currently occupying the only Ssangyong Motor Company car manufacturing plant in the city of Pyeongtaek, near Seoul. The workers have been occupying the plant since May 22nd this year in response to the company announcing it would lay off over two thousand workers. Ssangyong filed for bankruptcy in February this year because of falling car sales which saw it abandoned by its Chinese parent company, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.
As part of its application for bankruptcy Ssangyong proposed a restructuring plan to lay off 2,646 workers and put up the Pyeongtaek plant as collateral for loans to make the company profitable again. This plan was accepted by the court on condition the lay offs take place.
On May 31st the company announced it was shutting down the factory due to the occupation and has refused to negotiate further with the workers. The workers have been able to maintain the occupation with support from their families and their union, the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU). The workers are demanding all lay offs be withdrawn and calling on the government to step in and provide public funding to the company to save their jobs and make the company viable again.
On June 26th the company announced a final offer, without any consultation with the workers, that did not reverse any of the lay offs. The next day a mixed force of four thousand police, hired thugs and scab workers surrounded the plant and attempted to break in and end the occupation. Although they did manage to break into the plant they were eventually fought off by the workers, who were armed with crow bars and Molotov cocktails, and the company was forced to call off the action.
On July 16th a four thousand strong protest, organized by the KMWU and other Korean unions, was held outside Pyeongtaek City Hall. The protesters demanded an end to the use of police brutality against the striking workers, further negotiations and public funding to save the workers’ jobs. The protesters also attempted to march to the occupied plant to meet with the workers but were beaten back by police who arrested 82 protesters.
The valiant efforts of the Pyeongtaek workers to militantly defend their jobs is all the more impressive given the poor situation in terms of labour rights in South Korea. Under the hard right leadership of President Lee Myeong Bak, who was elected in December 2007, labour rights have been noticeably worsening in South Korea. An example of the worsening situation is the arrest of seventy-five union organisers of the KMWU in July-September 2008. The government crackdown was in response to the KMWU’s participation in a general strike called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) on July 2nd 2008. On December 19th 2008, KMWU organiser Yoon Hae-mo, the Hyundai Motor Branch Chair, was convicted of Criminal Obstruction of Business and was given a one year gaol sentence.
In February this year an international union fact finding mission found that labour rights had deteriorated in South Korea since the lifting of an OECD monitoring process in 2007. The fact finding mission called for the reinstatement of the OECD monitoring process and for international pressure to force the South Korean government to bring South Korea’s labour laws in line with international standards.