Crackdown in South Korea as President Lee emphasises need for "labour market flexibility"

Nineteen former workers at the Kor-Tek guitar and bass factory in Dungchon, Seoul, have been indicted on serious charges relating to the occupation of the plant late last year. The charges, alongside similar cases, have led to protests from unions which describe them as “excessive” and “preposterous”.

Submitted by Django on May 8, 2009

The original dispute at the plant related to management plans to close the factory and move production to China. Workers quickly staged a sit-in strike, but this was broken up by police after only four hours. The strikers were rounded up, and two local union leaders were given one year sentences, which were later commuted to suspended sentences.

However, prosecutors have again targeted the workers, seeking a second round of charges. It is this move which has drawn fire from unions and other organisations, with Sung Sei-Kyung of the Korean Metalworkers’ Union stating, “The union members thought the case was over, and we feel the indictments are preposterous." Prosecutors are pursuing charges of armed housebreaking against 19 strikers and union members.

The move isn’t an isolated one, and follows similar cases. Two union leaders have recently been arrested over their participation in a protest against Donghee Auto Co., a company which supplies parts for Kia motors, four months after the event. Three union officials had already been sentenced in relation to the demonstration.

Critics are claiming the moves represent an attempt to send a message that actions around such disputes will be treated harshly, and are part of the South Korean state’s oppressive response to the threat of spreading industrial unrest.

Meanwhile, the office of president Lee Myung-Bak has been emphasising its intentions to “solve labour flexibility” i.e. to encourage further casualisation and the erosion of working conditions through the Contractual and Part-time Worker Protection Act and the Labor Standards Act. The law currently requires that companies offer irregular workers regular contracts after two years of employment, but the Lee administration is attempting to extend that threshold to four years. President Lee’s spokesman emphasised this aim at a recent emergency economic council meeting on the 7th of May.