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Ssangyong Motors serves as test-case on changes in S. Korea’s labor market and safety net Analysts say unions must take a lead in reducing unemployment fear and address labor market transformations in South Korea’s information society

 

 

<photo> Lee Myung-won, a reporter who had stayed in the paint shop with union members staging a strike, is apprehended by police officers while exiting the Ssangyong Motors plant, August 7.

 

Many are pointing out that the Ssangyong Motors situation brought into relief the limitations of the labor market and the labor movement. Experts agree that serious examination is needed on the conditions that brought on this unprecedented bitter struggle and 77-day strike protest. They are also saying the labor movement needs to prepare a strategy to address the unemployment crisis, which is now becoming a part of everyday reality.

 

In addition, experts agree that South Korea’s society fears unemployment. According to data from the Korean Metal Workers Union, the average monthly salary in 2007 of an Ssangyong Motors employee was 3.08 million Won. If laid off, the maximum unemployment allowance is 40,000 Won a day, and so the most a worker would receive is 1 million Won a month. Lee Sang-ho, a researcher at the union’s policy research center, says this means an autoworker with an average family size of three to support would have to survive on one-third of their income for up to six months (the unemployment benefit period) while they find a new job. Lee’s argument is that for autoworkers, being laid off could be a threat to their survival.

 

The bifurcated labor market, divided between regular and irregular workers, adds to unemployment fears. Lee Byeong-hun, the head of the labor committee of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, says laid off workers must jump into risky self-employment ventures with their severance payments or float as irregular workers. Given this likelihood, workers cannot help but become more attached to their current workplace. A supplementary investigation of the economically active population by the Korea Labour and Society Institute in March shows that if regular worker salaries were calculated at 100 percent, irregular workers were making 48.9 percent in comparison.

 

Ha Jong-gang of Hanul Professional Law Corporation says if South Korea’s social safety net was well developed, the workers of Ssangyong Motors would not have resisted to the extent they did, and since this latest incident was not used as an opportunity for the government to switch to policies to strengthen the country’s social safety net, similar incidents could occur at any time.

 

Voices are meanwhile calling on unions to reflect on their existing labor movement methods. The all-or-nothing struggle, in which unionists either get everything or nothing, failed to yield the desired results this time. One labor figure says the Ssangyong Motors union failed to present a concrete alternative to the company’s structural readjustment plan. He said the workers had been unable to gather broad public support because the struggle had led to a sit-down strike and violent clashes with the police and management.

 

Others are suggesting that unions, who are buried under wage and collective bargaining issues, broaden their scope of activity. Professor Kim Ho-gi of Yonsei University says in an information society where there is growth without employment, even if labor and management are able to strike a grand compromise over layoffs, they have not arrived at a fundamental solution. Kim says organized labor, too, must present society with a detailed program on how to confront transformations in the labor market.

 

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

 

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