Archive for December, 2010

From Ratification to Empowerment: Reflections on the 11th International Migrants Day

Posted in articles, statements on December 16th, 2010 by pssp – 81 Comments

16 December 2010

Wol-san Liem
Research Institute for Alternative Workers Movements

This December 18 with be the 11th International Migrants Day. Founded in December 2000, International Migrants Day marks the anniversary of the General Assembly’s adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of the Families (hereafter, the Convention) on December 18, 1990. Around the world, migrant workers and their supporters will use this day to demand changes in national policies, work conditions and social practices that are discriminatory and oppressive towards non-nationals, and call on governments to ratify the Convention, which sets minimum basic standards states must respect.

In the last several decades, recognition of migration as a global phenomenon and the importance of migrant labor to the global economy has increased significantly. Most governments now at least give lip service to the need to protect migrants’ human rights. Nonetheless, only 43 countries, the majority of which are countries of origin, have ratified the Convention. South Korea is among the countries that has not.

If we look at South Korean policies towards migrant workers, this fact is not surprising. The Convention states that, &Migrant workers and members of their families shall be entitled to effective protection by the State against violence physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions& (Article 16, clause 2) and that they &shall not be subjected individually or collectively to arbitrary arrest or detention& (Article 16, clause 4). The South Korean government’s sole method for dealing with undocumented migration, however, is to carry out indiscriminate and often violent immigration raids, detain all of those arrested and deport them with out trial. The tragic death of a migrant workers as a result of these policies last month, shows just how brutal they are. On October 29, immigration officers raided a factory in the Gasan district of Seoul during a concentrated immigration crackdown carried out ahead of the G20 Summit. When Trinh Cong Quan, a 35-year-old Vietnamese worker and the father of a 4-month old daughter, found all exits blocked he tried to escape through a second story window. Quan fell and was severely injured. After lying in a coma for several days, he passed away on November 3. Far from taking responsibility, the Seoul Immigration Service simply claimed it had followed legally prescribed procedures and therefore owed nothing to Quan’s bereaved family.

In the area of labor rights, the Convention states that migrant workers shall not be discriminated against with respect to work conditions, remuneration, rest, health and safety measures and termination of the employment relationship (Article 25, clauses 1-3). In contradiction to these principles, the South Korean government’s Employment Permit System, maintains strict restrictions on the freedom to change workplaces and gives the power to employers to terminate labor contracts at will. By exacerbating the unequal relationship between employers and workers, this system enabling a wide range of rights violations, including under and non-payment of wages, forced overtime and lack of respect of health and safety standards.

Ratification of the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers signifies acknowledgement by states of their responsibility to work actively to eradicate this sort of discrimination. Thus, demands for ratification have important symbolic meaning. Ratification, however, does not guaranteed change, only a general acceptance of the need for change. Moreover, the standards prescribed in the Convention are highly limited, given that they represented the lowest common denominator to which the General Assembly could agree. Even more important, therefore, than demands for ratification are the struggles of migrants themselves to gain recognition as workers, as members of society and as the subjects of rights.

Many times the demands made in these self-determined struggles go beyond the rights guaranteed in the Convention. The Convention, for example, guarantees the right to basic education for all migrants (Article 30), but acess to educational institutions equal to that of nationals only to documented migrants (Article 43). In the United States, undocumented migrant youth are demanding more. They have fought for several years for passage of the Dream Act, which would guarantee them the right to attend college, access to financial support for higher education and pathways to legal permanent residence. This fight has not yet been won and the legitimacy of the Act has recently been tarnished by its attachment to the National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2011 and the inclusion of a provision that would require young people who could not go to college to serve in the military to achieve permanent residence. Nonetheless, the Dream Act struggle has empowered undocumented migrant youth as a real political force in American society and made their situation impossible to ignore. It has already given birth to dozens of talented young activists who will lead the fight for migrants rights in the United States well into the future.

In South Korea, migrant workers have been fighting for the right to freedom of association since 2005 through the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Migrants Trade Union (MTU). The Convention only protects the migrants’ rights to freely join trade unions and participate in their activities (Article 26). Since its founding, however, MTU has insisted that migrants have the right not only to join but also to form their own unions, a right which under the South Korean Constitution applies to all workers, regardless of social status. Through their persistent organizing in the face of government repression, the members of MTU have demonstrated that they are in fact the subjects of this right regardless of what the South Korean government says. Their efforts, in conjunction with the efforts of migrant worker in other countries, have led to international recognition. In November 2009, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) issued recommendations to the South Korean government, clearly recognizing the right of migrant workers, documented and undocumented to form and join trade unions of their choosing and calling on the government to immediately recognize MTU’s status as a legal union.

In addition to these unequivocal statements, the ILO and UN recommendations also recognized the South Korean governments’ continued targeting of MTU officers for arrest and deportation under the pretext of immigration law violations as contrary to the principle of freedom of association, and called for an end to such attacks. Despite these recommendations, however, the South Korean government has not stopped its efforts to undermine MTU. Following the arrest and deportation of MTU officers in 2007 and 2008, the Immigration Service is again after the union’s leadership. It has issued a summons to MTU President Michel Catuira, a documented migrant worker, claiming he has not maintained a legitimate employment relationship and has engaging in political activities prohibited under the Immigration Control Law. In the meantime, the East Seoul Branch of the Seoul Regional Ministry of Employment and Labor has cancelled the employment permit granted the President Catuira’s employer clearly seeking to give credibility to the Immigration Service’s charges.

These measures are an obvious effort on to undermine MTU. If President Catuira is found to have violated the Immigration Control Law, he will lose his visa and become immediately deportable. It can only be assumed that this is precisely what the Immigration Services has in mind.

Sadly, the pressure being placed on President Catuira has received very little attention in the wider South Korean labor movement. Perhaps this is because of the general weakness of the movement at present, or perhaps its is because such attacks on MTU’s leadership have become so commonplace. Whatever the reason, the lack of response is unfortunate for several reasons. First, given that MTU is an affiliate of the KCTU Seoul Regional Council and President Michel a KCTU officer, these actions by the government represent an assault on KCTU as a whole and the freedom of association rights of Korean workers in general. Second, as migrant workers make up an increasingly significant part of the South Korean labor force organizing them becomes ever more important if the labor movement is to regain its power and ability of to defend workers wages, conditions and rights. MTU, as a union organizing migrant workers, must therefore be protected. Finally, the attack on President Catuira is representative of the racist nature of the South Korean state, whose policies reproduce the low social and economic status of non-white foreigners. In that racism serves to divide us--to keep us from uniting as workers and common people--it is a structure of oppression that victimizes all of us.

Migrant workers and migrant support organizations will mark International Migrants Day with a protest at Marronnier Park on Sunday, December 19. Labor and social movement actors can show their support for the rights of migrants by coming at in force. As we celebrate the day and call for ratification of the UN Migrants convention, we should also make a strong demand for an end to the attack on President Catuira and the continued violation of migrant workers freedom of association rights. In the long-term. if we are to reverse the entrenchment of racial hierarchy in South Korean society and enable the unity of all workers and common people, migrant and non-migrant activists must use our collective wisdom to find new ways to organize and empower migrant workers as a social and political force.

First Seoul Women Union Members’ Assembly held on December 11

Posted in activities on December 14th, 2010 by pssp – 64 Comments

On Saturday November 11 a historic event took place. Roughly 300 women workers from the Seoul area gathered at Yeonsei University's Widang Auditorium for the first ever Seoul Women Union Members' Assembly. This event was organized by a coordinating committee composed of the women's committees of several unions and progressive political parties. PSSP is proud to have participated on this body and contributed to making the Women Union Members’ Assembly possible.

During the assembly, which lasted for several hours, participants shared their experience as women in the workplace with one another. The women were diverse in terms of occupation, including: public servants, educators, office workers, service workers, factory workers, care workers and cleaning workers. While the details of their jobs differ, however, the women found they have a common experience of oppression and discrimination as women living and working in a patriarchal society. The majority were irregular workers, suffering from low wages and lack of job security. Many shared experiences of being discriminated against, belittled and/or sexually harassed by colleagues or bosses who saw them simply as easy victims. Rather than remaining silent about these experiences, the women at the assembly chose to raise their voices to condemn the maltreatment and call for change.

The Assembly program also included speeches by women from unions currently on strike, including KEC Semi-conductors and Jaeneung Education. Performances by women union members, including singing by cleaning workers and a dance by care workers, were received enthusiastically by the audience as was a skit that illustrated the realities of women workers' lives.

By the end of the assembly participants had made a firm commitment to one another to work together to overcome discrimination and improve their work conditions. The also vowed to leave the periphery of their unions to become central actors in the workers movement and proclaimed the importance of a feminist perspective to union revitalization.

While the first Women Union Members' Assembly was held in Seoul many people have suggested that it be expanded to a national scale in the future. PSSP agrees with this proposal and hopes to work with other organizations and unions for its realization.

Hyundai Irregular Workers’ Factory Occupation Ends after 25 Days

Posted in articles, statements on December 10th, 2010 by pssp – 56 Comments

10 December 2010

Wol-san Liem
Research Institute for Alternative Workers Movements

Yesterday (December 9), members of the Hyundai Motors Irregular Workers Chapter of the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) left factory 1 of the Hyundai Plant in Ulsan. Their departure marked the end of a 25-day long occupation, which they had endured without adequate food, water or bedding.

Today, representatives from the Hyundai Motors Irregular Workers Chapter, the Hyundai Motors Local Branch (regular workers), and the KMWU sat down with representatives from Hyundai Motors and its in-house subcontractors. In accordance with an agreement reached between the President of the Irregular Workers Chapter, Lee Sang-su, President of the Local Branch, Lee Gyeong-hun and President of the KMWU, they presented the following 4 demands: 1) Cancellation of damage suits and charges against workers who participated in the occupation, and payment of medical bills; 2) guarantee of reinstatement for those who participated in the occupation, 3) protection for strike leaders, and 4) a plan for negotiations concerning the regularization of illegal dispatch workers.

While negotiations have begun, it will be an uphill battle to get demands met, and take even more determination before the ultimate goal of regularization for illegal dispatch workers is achieved. Past experience including a similar struggle in 2005, has shown that without the pressure of a factory occupation it is not likely that Hyundai Motors will yield much ground. For this reason many of the striking workers had not wanted to leave factory 1 until after their demands were met in full, and originally pledge to continue the occupation until Hyundai agreed to employ them directly as regular workers.

In reality, however, the striking irregular workers have faced increasingly difficult conditions in the last several days. In addition to repression at the hands of Hyundai Motors, they have been put under growing pressure by the leadership of the Hyundai Local Branch to bring their struggle to a speedy conclusion. While the KMWU Delegates Assembly voted in favor of a general strike in support of the irregular workers struggle on December 22, it had not set a firm date. Meanwhile, President Lee Gyeong-hun of the Hyundai Motors Local Branch determined to put the general strike to a second vote at a Branch general assembly, despite the fact that the KMWU Constitution gives the delegates assembly the right to call for a general strike. When the Hyundai Motors Local Branch leadership could have been educating its members on the importance of regular-irregular workers solidarity and preparing for the general strike, it was instead suggesting to its members that it was time for struggle to be over.

With knowledge of the negative result of the Branch general assembly, and the reality that the second vote signified the cancellation of general strike plans and the loss of support from the Branch, the irregular workers set to heated debate within the factory about whether to go one with their occupation or agree to leave and begin negotiations with a set of less than satisfactory demands. In the end, they chose to accept the demands listed above as a basis for negotiation and entrusted the decision to continue or end the occupation to the Chapter leadership. After meeting with the KMWU and Branch presidents, Lee Sang-su declared an end to the occupation.

Sadly, the conclusion of the occupation demonstrates clearly the limits of the solidarity between regular and irregular workers developed in the beginning of the strike and, even more so, the lack of will on the part of the Hyundai Motors Branch's leadership to support a strike that it should have recognized as the struggle of all Hyundai workers.

Nonetheless, there have been important victories through this struggle. The consciousness and daring of a few irregular workers quickly spread throughout the Irregular Workers Chapter and from Ulsan to Asan to Jeonju. The hundreds who participated in the strike have been transformed through the experience, coming to recognizing their common cause and developing the power and courage to demand their right to be treated equally. They constructed and made use of democratic decision-making structures even in the midst of the cruel conditions of their factory occupation, and formed a still growing sense of class-consciousness. Despite the fact that they will return to work on December 13, Hyundai irregular workers have vowed to continue organizing among their colleagues and preparing for the next phase of the struggle for regularization. As one reporter commented, the end of the factory occupation at the Ulsan plant represents, "a victory for the Hyundai irregular workers themselves, but a loss for the labor movement as a whole."

It is the power of class-consciousness and unity that makes struggle possible. The struggle, therefore, will surely go on.

The Hyundai Motors Irregular Workers Strike Continues!

Posted in articles on December 5th, 2010 by pssp – 59 Comments

4 December 2010

Today, December 4, was the 20th day of the Hyundai Motors irregular workers occupation of factory 1 at the Hyundai plant in Ulsan. The struggle has grown since it began on November 15. Yesterday, the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) carried out a work slowdown, with members of the Hyundai and Kia branches (regular workers) refusing to work overtime. Regional branches of the KMWU also refused overtime or carried out two-hour strikes. In addition on December 2, two laid-off members of the GM Daewoo Irregular Workers Chapter climbed the arch above the front entrance to the Daewoo plant in Incheon demanding to be reinstated as regular workers. They have vowed to continue their "high altitude" sit-in protest until their demands are met despite the fact that it is now the middle of winter in South Korea, and Daewoo hired thugs have blocked efforts to lift food up to them.

While several hundreds of Hyundai irregular workers continue to stay day and night without adequate food, cloths or bedding in the Ulsan factory, others have traveled to Seoul to make their struggle known more widely. Today, after a mass protest at Seoul Station Plaza, they and their supporters set up camp in front of the Hyundai-Kia headquarters in the Yangjae district of Seoul. The strikers will remain there with only plastic tarp for shelter until Hyundai Motors agrees to follow the decision of the Supreme Court and regularizes the in-house contracted workers it "indirectly" hires.

This morning, at 8:00am, Hyundai Motors' hired thugs used a forklift and crane to attack the occupied factory in Ulsan. They managed to smash in part of the wall and the window on the third floor of the building, but the protesting workers held their ground. According to the decision reached at the KMWU"s delegates assembly on November 23, the KMWU should have gone on general the moment the factory was attacked. But this has not happened. Rather, under pressure from the Hyundai Motors (regular workers) Branch, KMWU has lowered its goals, and is only planning partial for a partial strike in the next several days. KMWU needs to do the work now to make a real general strike possible!

The Hyundai Motors and GM Daewoo irregular workers struggle is not only about winning job security for a few individuals. It is a struggle against labor flexibilization being carried out by capital and the South Korean government, which affects the entire working class. As such, this struggle has great significance for the lives and working conditions of all workers in South Korea. In that precarious work and labor flexibilization polices are increasing across the globe, the Hyundai and GM Daewoo irregular workers struggles are, in fact, the struggle of workers all over the world.