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The Sewol ferry tragedy of April 16, 2014 shocked and saddened the entire global community. On behalf of public service workers everywhere, we mourn the accident victims and express our heartfelt condolences to the victims’ families and the Korean people. At the same time, we express our deep respect for the workers who responded heroically to the rescue effort, but who have not been sufficiently recognised.

 

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Press Conference to Announce PSI's Position on the Sewol Ferry Tragedy @ KHMU

 

 

 

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Press Conference to Announce PSI's Position on the Sewol Ferry Tragedy @ KHMU

 

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Press Conference to Announce PSI's Position on the Sewol Ferry Tragedy @ KHMU

 

 

PSI defends quality public services, based on the principle that people must come before profits. The Sewol tragedy brings to light the Korean government’s focus on the maximisation of profits at the expense of public safety. The families of the Sewol victims deserve that you examine the pro-corporate deregulation whereby the Korean shipowners’ association allowed the decrepit and unsafe ferry to sail; investigate the privatisation of public safety functions with rescue work handed over to private companies, and assess the overall inadequate disaster response systems that led to the Sewol tragedy. The government sought to distract attention from its failed response by ‘establishing discipline’ within public administration and proposing a rushed restructuring of departments without waiting for the results of a serious investigation.

 

In many cases, it is public sector workers who have the best understanding of safety risks, their causes and their solutions. Workers often have to criticize the power of management or government. They can do this because they have the protection of their trade unions.

 

However, unlike in many fellow OECD countries, public sector unions in Korea are not considered social partners by the government and other public sector employers. Korean public sector unions, who have denounced corrupt public institution heads and presented alternatives to privatisation, have repeatedly asked for, but been denied negotiations or consultations.

 

Worse still, fundamental labour rights are completely denied to many civil servants who must respond first in the case of disasters. The Korean Government Employees Union, which represents 140,000 civil servants, has still not been recognised as a legal union. Fire fighters, police officers, correctional officers and members of the armed forces, all workers directly involved in the aftermath of the Sewol tragedy, have no right to form unions or occupational associations in Korea. This means these first responders have no venue through which to present their collective opinion on working conditions or effective disaster response. PSI is concerned that this situation contributed to the scale of the Sewol tragedy.

 

Perhaps even more so than at other workplaces, the experiences and opinions of workers at government institutions dealing directly with disasters should be reflected in decision-making. In many countries, PSI unions representing these workers are helping to resolve organisational problems, contributing to improving their departments and services to the public.

 

This cannot happen, however, unless these workers have the right to be represented by unions or associations, a right denied them in Korea. The result in Korea is that disaster response has been left up to unilateral decision-making by high-level administrators or managers of private corporations.

 

Sadly, the problems that led to the Sewol disaster are not limited to ferry transport. They span all of Korean society, impacting all PSI affiliates in Korea and the citizens they serve. PSI has learned that decreases in the frequency of safety inspections, workforce reductions, outsourcing of maintenance and repeal of restrictions on vehicles lifespans have led to regularly occurring accidents in the Korean subway and rail networks. PSI is also aware that the continued reduction of nurse staffing levels and an increase in the use of precariously-employed nurses, the outsourcing of some healthcare jobs, and cost-cutting on medical supplies is severely threatening patient safety. PSI is concerned, moreover, that the Park Geun-hye government is now pursuing a healthcare privatisation policy (increase of for-profit healthcare) that will only make this situation worse.

 

PSI sees the tragic Sewol accident as a stern warning of the need to create a safer Korean society. We call on the government to carry out a thorough investigation into the fundamental causes of the tragedy that includes an examination of the role of deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing, and corruption and the root causes of the failed rescue effort. We hope that such an investigation will lead to a broader review of indiscriminate deregulation, privatisation and cost cutting policies. In addition, PSI demands that the voices of workers and trade unions be adequately reflected in this process and that the fundamental labour rights of first responders and all public sector workers be guaranteed to make this possible. We warn against scapegoating our members, workers who want to serve the people who depend on their dedication and expertise.

 

Rosa Pavanelli

General Secretary

Public Services International

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