Hundreds of thousands of workers in South Korea struck last week against “labour market reforms” pushed by the government of president Moon Jae-in.
Around 160,000 workers took part in the one day strike called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). Tens of thousands joined demonstrations held in 14 different places across Korea including in front of the National Assembly.
Metal workers, heavily threatened by corporate restructuring formed a major part of the action. Public sector workers whose hopes of gaining permanent employee status have been bitterly disappointed also took part in large numbers.
Strikers expressed their anger at the Moon Jae-in government for failing to fulfil its promises of reform and instead pursuing anti-labour policies.
Moon Jae-in became president after protests beginning in October 2016 ousted former president Park Geun-hye in March last year.
It was strikes by public sector workers resisting Park’s labour reforms that provided the spark for the “Candlelight Protests”.
Moon Jae-in has promoted his government as the “government of Candlelight Protests”. He had to promise he would reverse Park’s labor reforms and anti-union measures, and respect workers’ rights.
At first the Moon government tried to balance between workers and employers. He asked trade union leaders who demanded rapid reform to wait one more year.
Trade union leaders initially had hopes for a new platform for “social dialogue” implemented by the newly elected government. They thought the Moon government would benefit them and deliver some reforms.
But the Moon Jae-in government turned from dragging its feet to outright betrayal.
A deepening economic crisis was the main reason for this.
This year manufacturing companies—the main economic growth engine of South Korea—saw a sharp drop in sales.
Strikers said Moon’s promises“all turned out to be lies”
Overall economic indices such as investment, growth, and employment all deteriorated. The crisis of the manufacturing sector led to pressure to reduce labour costs such as wages. The right wing pressured the government to officially abandon reforms.
Moon Jae-in pushed ahead with easing regulations and privatizing medical services. At the same time he started to attack wages and working conditions.
Major industries such as shipbuilding laid off a large of number of workers.
Last year the government raised the minimum wage by a big margin. But this spring it offset that impact with a law revision in the National Assembly. Workers were infuriated by this act of “giving and taking back again”.
In recent months the government has also tried to make working hours more flexible. This would allow employers to overwork workers as needed without incurring overtime pay.
Moon Jae-in is carrying out these attacks in collaboration with the leading opposition party, which used to be the ruling party under Park. As a result the right is reasserting its voice.
The workers who were on strike last week expressed their anger at the government. They said Moon’s promises “all turned out to be lies”.
The approval rating of the government is falling to around 50%. Only this spring, the ruling party had enjoyed an approval rating of almost 80 percent owing to its policies for reconciliation between South and North Korea. It won local elections by a landslide.
Ten days before the one-day strike, the KCTU held a 60,000-strong national demonstration denouncing the government. Even the Federation of Korean Trade Unions—a relatively more moderate confederation which had officially aligned itself with the ruling party—had to hold its own massive rallies.
The majority of KCTU leaders still want dialogue with the government. They hesitate to organise the anger of workers into struggle and expand it as they fear attacking Moon Jae-in might embolden the right.
But the only way to prevent the right from capitalizing on Moon’s unpopularity is through workers’ struggle.