Fighting the Tiger

Early in the morning of 26 December 1996, as South Korea slept, the ruling New Korean Party met secretly and in seven minutes passed the most draconian labour legislation the workers had encountered since the end of military rule in 1987.

When workers awoke a new labour law had been introduced which gives big business greater freedoms in sacking workers and setting working hours. A ban on the formation of two trade unions in any one workplace was introduced until the year 2002 along with the outlawing of new umbrella labour groups until the year 2000.

A new National Security Act was also introduced which gives the Korean CIA greater powers. Although ostensibly justified by the incursion of a North Korean submarine into South Korean waters last year, many workers believe the new act is meant to compliment the labour laws and will be used to crush internal dissent and re-discipline the workers with an iron fist.

President Kim Young-sam rationalised the new legislation by stating that the country needs to endure a period of radical change if it wanted to compete on the global market, fending off, for instance, the threat from low-cost economies like China. Last year, rising labour costs and a slowed economic growth resulted in a £12.5 billion trade deficit and a drop in the profits of quoted companies by 40 percent.

Ironically the new legislation came within two weeks of South Korea making it into the “big man’s club”—the OECD, which includes all the leading industrialised countries, and in which a condition of membership is the recognition of certain labour rights.

Needless to say hundreds of thousands of workers immediately took to the streets in a national, stoppage which was the largest in the country’s post-1945 history, taking part in huge demonstrations and sit-ins and engaging in running battles with the security forces.

As can be imagined, the chaebol (the country’s giant industrial conglomerates) were the hardest hit, losing £640 million in the first week of industrial action, bringing to a total of £2.7 billion lost to similar action throughout 1996—a loss which prompted the South Korean capitalist class to embark on a massive transfer of funds into the cheaper labour markets of developing countries and first world economics.

At a time when government ministers in this country have been telling workers that trade-union curbs and labour market de-regulation are important if Britain wants to compete with the likes of South Korea, it seems paradoxical that South Korea wants to mirror Britain.

The truth is that the South Korean capitalist class have come to realise that the average eight percent annual growth they have enjoyed since 1960 has peaked and that profits can only be maintained by following the example set elsewhere—by hammering the workers still further and in investing in countries with low productivity costs where workers have fewer rights.

What becomes of the ongoing unrest in South Korea is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain though. It is high time the workers there, as well as their counterparts world-wide, realised they are exactly “something to be bought and sold— a commodity” which one Korean labour leader recently claimed they were not.

John Bissett

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