The South Korean Minimum Wage Struggle

Minimum wage in South Korea was set at KRW 4580/hr (roughly USD 4/hr) for 2012. The cost of a Big Mac set at a McDonalds in South Korea is KRW 5200 (USD 4.46). In other words, in a country where the per capita income is over USD 20,000, a minimum wage worker cannot even buy a fast food meal after an hour of work.

In South Korea, the minimum wage is set by a tripartite Minimum Wage Committee made up of nine labor representatives, nine employer representatives and nine ‘public interest’ representatives. This committee meets at the end of June each year to set the minimum wage for the following year. Around this time each year, therefore, unions and social movement organizations carry out a struggle to demand an increase in the minimum wage.

The current minimum wage is only 32% of the average wage. It is workers who work the hardest in the worst conditions – janitorial workers, security guards, restaurant workers and workers in small-scale manufacturing enterprises – who have to get by on minimum wage. For 2013, KCTU is demanding that minimum wage be raised to KRW 5600 (USD 4.80) – 50% of the average wage.

This year, however, the minimum wage struggle has to do with more than simply winning an increase. The reason for this is that the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MoL) suddenly changed the composition of the Minimum Wage Committee without notifying the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) ahead of time. Originally, labor was represented by 4 KCTU representatives and 5 FKTU representatives.

This year, however, the MoL suddenly gave a seat to the recently formed Korean People’s Labor Union Confederation (KLUC). The KLUC is so pro-government it has been called the ‘Lee Myung-bak Confederation’, and progressives fear its representative will not act in the interest of workers. In the past, the labor and employers representatives on the committee have put forth opposing proposals, while the ‘public interest’ representatives put forth a compromise position. Added to this structure, the KLUC representative is likely to wield excessive power. As such both KCTU and FKTU are currently boycotting the committee in protest.

KCTU is also working together with social movement organizations in a campaign to raise public awareness about the importance of raising the minimum wage. This campaign includes one-person protests, street outreach and street marches throughout the country. Through these actions, KCTU and participating organizations seek to educate the public about the hardships faced by minimum-wage workers.

So far the response has been vary positive, an encouraging sign given that social pressure on the ‘public interest’ representatives to take the side of labor is the only real way to influence the Minimum Wage Committee’s decision.

The minimum wage struggle, however, still has a long way to go before it gains real strength. First, it is important to come up with a means for deciding the minimum wage based on the cost of living. In addition, it is important not only to raise social awareness of the importance of a minimum wage increase, but also to organizing minimum-wage workers into unions so that they may become agents of the struggle. This is the only way that real power to win a fair minimum wage will be developed.

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