Organizing Korean Contingent Labor

Posted February 29, 2004

AE LIM YUN is an activist in Solidarity for the Abolition of Contingent Work, in Seoul, South Korea.  At age 30, she holds a doctorate in labor law and—a contingent worker herself—works as an instructor in labor law at several universities, among them Seoul National University.  She and her organization work with the Korean Federation of Trade Unions.  Last summer she traveled in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil in order to advise her organization on the contingent workers movement in those countries.  While here she agreed to an interview with labor educator and writer Dan La Botz, which we conducted on July 22, 2003.

Background and History

Korea, located on a peninsula between China, Russia and Japan, began to fall under Japanese influence in the 1870s.  From about 1910 until 1945, Korea was a colony of the Japanese empire.  With the end of the Second World War, Korea became an independent nation, but also a battleground of the Cold War.

In 1948 the country was divided into Communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea, the former allied with the Soviet Union and then Communist China and the latter allied with the United States.  Between 1950 and 1953 Korea was the scene of the bitter Korean War involving not only North and South Korea, but also China and the United States.

Syngman Rhee, president from 1948 to 1960, permitted the continued influence of Korean collaborators with the Japanese and himself worked closely with the United States.  In 1960 General Park Chung-hee carried out a coup, overthrowing Rhee and holding power until his assassination in 1979.

Under Park’s regime, combining repression of the labor movement with support for the chaebol or family-owned conglomerates, and adopting a policy of export industrialization, South Korea experienced an unheard of growth rate of 41% annually between 1961 to 1972.  In those years South Korea was transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation.

Park was succeeded by other military dictators, Generals Chun and Roh, both of whom were involved in carrying out the Kwangjoo massacre of May 1980.  The violence and corruption of the military regimes was opposed by the Korean people and by the labor movement.  Student activists and the labor movement working together played a central role in ending dictatorship and bringing democracy to Korea.

The democratic movement grew strong between 1981 and 1987 when President Chun was forced from office.  Since then South Korea has had a democratic political system dominated by conservative political parties and rife with corruption.

The 1997 Asian Economic Crisis had a devastating effect on the Korean economy, ending the nation’s famous high growth rates.  As a consequence, the government and corporations began to reorganize the economy, deepening the country’s commitment to neoliberalism.  With the neoliberal economic model—free trade, privatization, deregulation, cuts in the social budget—there also came an increase in the use of contingent workers (without fulltime, permanent jobs) and immigrant labor.

South Korea today has a total population of 48 million, and a work force of 13 million.


ATC: What is the general situation of the labor unions and the social movements?

Ae Lim Yun: First, the Korean labor movement had some hope in the new president, Roh Moo Hyun. However, now the unions realized that the new president’s policies are very similar to the ex-president’s, and that means that the unions have to fight against the government.

In recent days we have had big strikes against the government.  For example, the railroad workers struck against the privatization of the railroad industry.  Another example would be the Korean bank workers’ strike against the sale of the Korean banks to foreign capital.

Another would be the big demonstration about the minimum wage. In Korea we have a legal minimum wage, but that standard is too low for most workers to survive.  We argued that the legal minimum wage has to be lifted.

About 11-12% of all workers are organized in labor unions, and that percentage has been decreasing since 1989, when 19% were organized.  Korean labor unions mostly represent male workers who hold fulltime, permanent jobs in large corporations and public corporations.

After the early 1990s, the employers replaced workers holding regular jobs with contingent workers and with female workers, but the labor unions didn’t organize those new workers.  Since 2000, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has tried to organize both, but union members in the companies commonly feel that the contingent workers are a “bumper” between the regular workers and layoffs or mass dismissal.

So, since 2000, various contingent workers have organized their own unions and have affiliated with the KCTU, but are independent from the regular unions in the same companies and industries.

ATC: What is the current situation of the contingent workers movement?

ALY: We have many difficulties in organizing contingent workers.  One is the legal barrier.  For example, in Korean labor law independent contractors are not regarded as workers.

They have no rights to organize unions, and no rights to participate in strikes.  But in Korea there are many, many independent contractors.  I think they represent over one million workers.

Also, temporary workers have difficulties in organizing unions.  Of course in legal terms they have also the right to organize, but they have two employers, the user company and the supplier or contracting company.

The user company, which really uses the workers, controls the working conditions and the job, but the workers are hired by the contractor company.  Having two employers makes organizing difficult legally.

ATC: What about immigrant workers?

ALY: In Korea, there are almost 400,000 migrant workers.  They come from Southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Nepal.  And recently we have many immigrant workers from China, and they are Korean-Chinese (people of Korean ancestry who lived in China).

Since 1994 the government has promoted the importation of immigrant workers because of the shortage of labor, especially on small farms, and for the dirty and dangerous jobs.

First they are imported as “trainees,” but if they want to earn money in Korea, they usually escape the company that hired them. Undocumented immigrant workers make more money than the trainees.  I think that is the reason why in Korea most immigrant workers are illegal or undocumented workers.

The KCTU has tried to organize immigrant workers into unions, but we have many difficulties organizing—they don’t speak Korean and we don’t speak their languages.

In Korea, immigrant workers do not have the same legal rights as other workers.  Most Korean workers dislike them because they think the immigrant workers will take their jobs. Koreans in general are not friendly to foreign people with cultural differences.

Since 2001, some immigrant workers have organized their own unions, and many Korean movement groups have tried to support their right to work and right to organize a union.  I think there is hope.

ATC: What is the general political situation in Korea right now?

ALY: There are two major parties in Korea; the Grand National Party is the conservative party, and the Democratic Party is less conservative.  We don’t really have a liberal party.  The Korean Democratic Labor Party (KDLP) is similar to Western liberal parties.

We have a new president, Roh Moo Hyun of the Democratic Party, who in the last presidential election promised that his foreign policy would be independent of the United States.

He promised that he would abolish the inequality of women and contingent workers in Korea.  He also promised that politics would be transparent.

However, now many people think that he is similar to the ex-president, Tae Jung Kim, meaning his policy remains what we call neoliberal.  For example, he continues deregulation of companies and the privatization of and the reducing the rights of the working class.

Also, he has been very dependent on the United States.  The result has been big protests against the new government by labor unions, and by various organizations of the urban poor, and farmers.

ATC: What is the political activity of the labor movement?

ALY: The labor movement ran candidates first in 1992, and then in 1997 the KDLP ran candidates for all major offices.  The party is organized mainly by the KCTU members.

In that 1997 election, the candidate was the first president of the KCTU whose name is Yong-il Kwon, and he remains the president of the party.  The party has the support of various organizations in the country, mainly the KCTU, but also some student organizations, and some progressive professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

But there is criticism of the KDLP because some people think the party’s policies do not concentrate on working-class issues.  Their policies seem to focus on the middle class, and to appear as a middle-class party.

ATC: Can you explain more about what you mean by that?

ALY: In Korea there is widespread fear of communism and socialism.  If someone raises the issues of socialism, this causes great fear because of the national security law which prohibits socialism or communism, or anything against the present government.  Most Korean labor unions had been suppressed by the government in the past because they seemed similar to socialism.

So the Korean Democratic Labor Party attempts to make itself appear not as a socialist party but as a liberal party.  Their policies would tend to help the small business people, for example through tax policies or the protection of their small business rights.

Another example concerns the KDLP policy toward North Korea.  In the Korean social, labor and political movement we have a policy for the reunification of Korea.  But that kind of movement has been suppressed by the government because they think that it is pro-North Korea.

The KDLP tries to keep its distance from the reunification movement.  I think it takes a very vague position on many issues.  However, I recognize that that party is supported by various groups and has popular support.

In 2002 the KDLP won a big victory in local elections in cities throughout the country, a victory that raised them to being the third party nationally.  At that time most Korean people felt disgusted about the traditional parties, the old, major parties, and wanted some change and transparency.

I think that’s why the KDLP won such a victory.  The KDLP appears to be young, and clean and to have the power to change politics and society.

ATC:Do there exist more radical groups to the left of the KDLP?

ALY: Yes. Though they are very weak, absolutely there are other left political groups in the Korean labor movement.  There is a leftist group called Workers Power that is active in the labor unions and in the social movements.

One of the members of Workers Power is Young Soo Won, the international director of the Korean Institute of Labor Studies and Policy (KISLP), a group that has members in various KCTU labor unions.  They are a socialist group that attempts to organize rank-and-file labor movements within the unions.  They attempt to educate ordinary workers about political issues.

In Korea, most workers and union members are not interested in political issues, or are politically conservative, and support the more conservative of the major parties.

Some of us have some disagreements with Workers’ Power, because we think they are too workerist.  We think we need a broader vision.  Some of us think that in addition to building a rank-and-file movement in the labor unions, we also need a policy on reunification of Korea, and a position opposing globalization.

Though we disagree with Workers’ Power, we think that they are a very honorable group, a very brave group, and we work together with them very harmoniously.  We admire them because they came from the student movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and they got jobs in industry and worked in unions or worked to organize unions.  Many of them were fired.  They were very strong and brave.

Since then Korean students have continued to get jobs in industry and to work in unions.  Today students get contingent jobs to work in the contingent workers’ movement.

We believe that we need a new vision of socialism.  We need to renew socialism and think about how to make socialism more democratic.

Dan La Botz is the editor of the online newsletter Mexican Labor News