Lee Yu Kyung in Pusan and Seoul, South Korea
Today, ‘occupy’ isn’t a word that war monsters or the power exclusively ‘occupy’ for their practice. But for those who have no means to make their voice heard, ‘to occupy’ has become their own.
While ‘The 99%’ have occupied wall street in New York and elsewhere against ‘The 1%’ for many weeks, Kim Jin-Suk – a labor activist in Korea – celebrates 300 days of her ‘aerial occupation’ of 35 meters above the ground on the crane No. 85 at the shipyard in Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction (here after HHIC) in Pusan in the country on November 1st. There’s little sign of ending the harshest ever protest, as a new report has come out that the HHIC management was reluctant to accept a proposal by National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee. Kim’s aerial occupation is likely to be stuck in another freezing weather.
“I have one and only demand which is to scratch out this massive layoffs. Once my demand will be met, I will walk down”.
Kim said in a phone interview.
By climbing up the crane around 3 am on a freezing day of January 6th, the 51- year-old activist has kicked off her lonely campaign demanding of nullifying lay off by HHIC management in recent years. Reversing their own words, the HHIC management has dismissed more than a thousand workers restarting from late 2009, causing two years-long workers’ struggle. The dismissal was following to another massive lay off of some 3,000 casual workers by HHIC’s sub-contractors. Union of HHIC launched a general strike in December 2010.
“The crane No. 85 has been a bitter memory haunting us” said Jeong Tae-Hoon, one of laid-off workers. The bitter memory, in which the former president of the union Kim Ju-Ik hung himself in October 2003 to discontinue his 129 days of protest against 600 job cuts then, must have greatly disturbed Kim Jin-Suk. Two weeks later another unionist plunged himself to death. Ever since, Kim Jin-Suk never turned on heater at her place with feeling of sorrow. Now, she’s been doing much the same, occupying the same crane with the same demand; ‘To withdraw lay offs’
Ms. Kim, the first woman welder in the country, herself was fired by the Chosun Shipbuilding Corporation – the former self of HHIC – in 1986 because of her disobedience to her superiors. She played a key role to break down the company-dominated union in 1987, the year of huge wave forming democratic unions all over the county. She never was reinstated unlikely most of laid off workers, including her unionists colleagues fired 20 years ago along with her. It is known that The Korea Employers Federation (or KEF) has opposed her reinstatement. She has been active as a member of direction committee for the Busan office of Korean Confederation of Tread Union (or KCTU), visiting most of strike venues and lecturing about workers’ rights and union movement.
Her critical stance is firm to not only management but also to the union’s former executive committee, who absurdly made an agreement with the management on June 27 terminating month-long strike. The agreement, about which KCTU describes ‘no valid’, didn’t specify about an issue of lay off, a key agenda for strikers. It was made despite strong protests within members of the union and laid-off workers in particular.
“In Korea we have ‘Industrial Union’ system, and HHIC union is a member of the umbrella union of Korea Metal Workers Union (or KMWU). It was KMWU leadership who’s authorized to make final signature with the management. Needless to say that we’ve opposed the contents of the deal signed by the executives of HHIC union.”
Yun Tack-Geun, the chief of Busan chapter of KCTU pointed out.
Violent crackdown was followed on the day of agreement. Strikers inside company’s compound were dragged out by private security thugs to the court order. Dozens of workers rushed to climb up the mid-point of the crane No. 85 –below from the Kim’s 35 meters point – and tied themselves to the crane. As of mid-October, three workers remain to occupy mid-point to desperately defend ‘Kim Jin-Suk at crane No. 85’.
“They have much more suffered than I have. There’s no protection at all from rain, wind or whatsoever. For me, I can shelter myself somehow around driving seats – about 1.5 square meters – from harsh weather. I feel very sorry for them” Ms. Kim lamented.
Fraudulent deal and Consequence
Nearly every morning for months now, some dozens of workers gathered in front of the HHIC main gate for their campaign chanting out “Lay off is a murder”. This is a popular saying in the country reflecting weakening job security in recent decade.
“I never knew any strike or workers’ rights” said Mun-Suk (45), one of the two women workers who got dismissed. She said her husband is casual worker who’s routinely faced with dismissal.
Another striker was Park Moon-Sik (36), who has worked for HHIC more than 9 years. Park said his wage in the first years was much lower than others might think as HHIC was one of Chaebols, family-owned business conglomerate in Korea-. He had been paid less than 1 million KWN (approx. 900 USD) for many years.
“Our wage has been raised up about 40% since 2003 when two comrades killed themselves” said Park.
HHIC has been notorious with low payment, growing number of casual workers and terrible quality of working condition, lunch meal in particular, which Ms. Kim has described in her book as follows ;
“In 80s, we had swallowed the black and boiled barley filled-lunch meal mixed with undrinkable smelly (industrial) water at a place where rats ran about”
This terrible quality of meal seems to have transmitted to the Hanjin’s new facility in Subic Freeport Zone (former US Naval base) in the Phillippines. Hanjin has invested 1.3 billion dollars for Subic facility so far, having much privileges such as 50 year lease agreement and tax benefits given by the government of the Philippines. The facility in Subic claims the world 4th largest shipbuilding facility, yet the company has provided shabby meal to workers, who are all casual workers employed via sub-contractors. There have been more than 30 workers killed since its launch caused inadequate safety measures.
“It’s not possible to explain Hanjin trouble in Korea without looking into the one in the Philippines”
said Professor. Hur Min-Young, a specialist on shipment industry.
“It is because of this expanded investment that Hanjin has had difficulty. The corporation has to yearly pay some 200 billion KWN (approx. 200 million USD) for interest of their loan that was used for investment in Subic. Hanjin management has taken gradual steps to move facilities from Korea to the Philippines, where they can use cheap labors”. The HHIC said to pay Subic workers 10-13% of what they do for Korean workers.
“During 90s, the company has excessively invested into the shipbuilding industry while others made their investment varied. In addition global recession in 2008 has impacted on Shipbuilding industry in general, which factor soon was to fade out though” Prof. Hur added. Apart from these, the company has paid 541.6 billion KWN (approx. 500million USD) as a forfeit for illegal inheritance.
The company has taken an excuse of financial problem for their massive lay off in Korea, claiming “orders are falling off to zero in the past 3 years”. However it was revealed that HHIC has commissioned orders to the Subic in the Phillippines, not Pusan.
“Fundamentally” Prof. Hur continued, “this is a problem of Chaebol whose way of run the corporation never was questioned in rational standard. They never were responsible for their mismanagement but charged workers paying the price” He termed it ‘imperial management’.
Problem of ‘Chaebol’
As a feeling of vulnerability towards the rich-friendly incumbent regime has been growing in the Asia’s 4th biggest economy, Kim’s ‘aerial occupation’ has sparked resentments from various walks of life, including university students whose tuition fee got high rocketed.
“I was deeply moved by Kim’s book titled ‘Salt Flower Tree’ ”. said Goh Myung-Woo (24), a student from Soe-Gang University. “This is a problem of us. We will face the same consequence if not fight now” Goh said.
Goh was one of thousands participant in the 5th Bus of Hope campaign on October 8th-9TH. Support ‘Kim Jin-Suk and HHIC workers’, the campaign was initiated by a poet, who’s on the run for months now. Since its first rally early June, the Bus of Hope has attracted tens of thousands citizens from all over the country traveling to Pusan in solidarity.
On the same day of the 5TH Bus of Hope, however, another rally was organized by right wing groups and former war-veterans chanting out. They’re chanting out, what they call, ‘the Bus of Despair’. They declared a ‘war on the Bus of Despair’.
“We are here to clean up such a rat-like Kim Jin-Suk, who’s climbed up to be perched at other’s property” said a senior member of ‘Parents’ association’, the most active group on the street since the incumbent conservative regime assumed to power. They call Bus riders ‘communists’.
As riot police were gearing up to fire water cannon at Hope riders, it was the disabled who’re quickly rolling their wheelchairs to the front low confronting with riot police. Striking.
Meanwhile, as new leadership of the HHIC union was elected in mid-October, “happiest day in the past 282 days” Kim twitted as the elected was the one supported by the laid-off workers’ association.
“We won the election despite heavy maneuvering the election by the management” said Cha Hae-Do, the new leader.
“It was ordinary citizens riding Hope Buses that had energized us, making our struggle alive. No media paid attention to us until Hope Buses initiated” he added.
Yet it was Kim Jin-Suk, whose nick name is ‘salt flowers’ referring to the white stains left on clothes by the sweat on workers’ backs – described by Kim herself in her book – , that ignite the Buses of Hope. Kim’s aerial occupation has touched ground mass of the Buses of Hope, not the Bus of Despair.