South Korean government arrests 450 workers as general strike seems imminent

Police apprehended more than 450 labor activists Saturday after a violent protest in Daejeon which left about 150 injured. Labour unrest is set to escalate this month as truck drivers plan to strike and a major labour umbrella group pledged to join.

Submitted by Ed on May 17, 2009

Thousands of Korean Confederation of Trade Unions members rallied in the city to mark the anniversary of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. They mourned a unionized trucker who committed suicide earlier this month in what colleagues said was a protest against the government's policies.

The clash erupted when activists marched toward a major transportation company and a police station at 6pm. They attacked riot police with flagpoles and stones, while police fought back with water cannons and batons.

About 50 protesters and 104 police officers were injured during the three-hour skirmish, according to the Daejeon Police Agency. The windows of 99 vehicles, including police buses, were shattered, it said. A total of 457 workers were taken to police stations. Police booked all of them and will seek arrest warrants for those who led the protest and were involved in the violence.

The labour group said police caused the collision by blocking their parade violently.

The bulk of protesters were from the Korean Cargo Workers' Union, which just ahead of the rally approved a plan to go on a walkout demanding labour rights, better working conditions and reinstatement of dismissed workers.

The leaders of the 15,000-member union will decide the strike date later. They will meet with representatives of railway, port, construction and public sector unions early this week to discuss joint actions.

During the rally, the KCTU declared it will advance its general strike scheduled for next month to join force with the truck drivers. The union is demanding basic labor rights for its members.

The government does not allow them the right for collective action because they are formally categorized as self-employed businessmen and not as employed workers. The drivers usually own trucks and work under contract with transport companies.

They also demand that transport firms cancel the reduction of payments and that Korea Express Inc., a major logistics company, rehire 78 laid-off workers.

A union leader committed suicide by hanging in Daejeon May 3. He had been wanted by police on charges of organizing illegal rallies against the company.

The cargo union staged a week-long strike in June last year, causing an estimated $7.2 billion in damage to the export-dependent economy, the government said.

The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said it will not accept the demands of the union and warned of stern action against illegal strikes. The government said it will stop paying fuel subsidies to striking truckers and cancel the business licenses of those who physically disrupt freight transportation. It will also mobilize military vehicles and personnel to escort non-striking truck drivers.