[FORUM]Listening to the oppressedThe deaths of laborers were involved in the two most controversial labor disputes of this year, the Doosan Heavy Indus-tries and Construction standoff and the truckers strike.
Bae Dal-ho, a 50-year-old member of the labor union at Doosan Heavy, burned himself to death on Jan. 9, leaving a note complaining about the harsh living conditions caused by the provisional seizure of his monthly salary and his property and about the agony of being laid off from his company. His death, which highlighted the seriousness of the workers’ unrest and mistrust between labor and management, sparked a labor dispute that lasted for 63 days.
Park Sang-jun, a 33-year-old union member of the Pohang chapter of the Korea Cargo Transport Workers Federation, called up a colleague on April 27, at a time when their protests were not gaining much attention, and said, “I can’t cope with my debts any more. Promise me you will lead our union to victory,” before committing suicide. His death became a catalyst for the union members’ combative spirit.
However dire a situation may be, death cannot be the answer. Much less should death be romanticized or used as a means to an end.
But if the painful outcries of the underprivileged can only be let out through killing oneself, we cannot call our society normal. The illegal collective action by the Cargo Workers Federation, which brought about the transportation crisis, cannot be tolerated, but it is precisely the reason independent truck owners were able to make their voices heard.
Truck owners are notorious for being the main culprit behind lawlessness on the roads and destruction of expressways. At any rate, they are the front-line workers of the distribution industry, the mainstay of our economy. They speed down expressways in the dead of night, drinking coffee to fight off sleep, risking their lives in order to clear off debts or to pay for their vehicles.
Mr. Park was one of those low-income truck drivers. He had a wife and children ages 4 and 6, and lived with them in a small leased apartment making a living driving trucks. The 80 million won ($66,000) he borrowed in order to purchase a 25-ton trailer added 10 million won a year to his debt load. He poisoned himself in agony. Mr. Park’s colleagues say that his death is not a personal issue, but a tragedy caused by the distorted freight system. They say that systematic exploitation, which is rooted in an outdated and unreasonable truck-lease system and multi-level subcontracting, is threatening the livelihood of truckers. With the average debt owed by the members of the federation at 35 million won, it is understandable that Mr. Park’s death drew general sympathy.
The unified response by the truck drivers came about naturally. The Cargo Workers Federation, founded last Octo-ber, saw an explosive increase in participation when its founding members joined the nationwide freight labor union of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions in February as associate members.
The local union members made themselves known to the country in the Pohang-Busan rallies and the slow-driving rallies on expressways.
Furthermore, the two-day march to Seoul on April 30, when about 10,000 truckers rallied and paralyzed the traffic in the Gwacheon city area, served as an opportunity to show their power. Placards reading “Halt the supplies and change the world” waved along the streets. They also warned of the eventual blockade on industrial complexes and ports.
The government sat on its hands even in the face of this developing fury. In a meeting held on April 21 that included representatives from the Cargo Workers Federation, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy, the Ministry of Finance and Economy and the Ministry of Labor, the government officials busily passed the buck.
Responsibility was distributed among various departments, none of which accepted any of it. Neither did a comprehensive coordination plan work. With the government in such a sorry state, cargo firms and concerned parties pulled out as well. President Roh’s remark to government officials ― “Does this country have any crisis management plan?” ― is absolutely right. The government was unable to cope with a real-life difficult problem.
The low-income truck owners caused a stir by paralyzing deliveries. It is the government’s duty to listen carefully to the underprivileged and to lessen their pain and grievances.
Neglect of this duty carries a high price tag, as can be observed in the truckers strike.
* The writer is an editorial writer of the Joongang Ilbo.
by Han Chun-su