[Viewpoint] The days atop a giant crane

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[Viewpoint] The days atop a giant crane

Some 40 meters (131 feet) atop a giant crane in a shipyard, a 51-year-old Korean woman watched the sun come up for the 194th time. She has weathered an unprecedented cold spell, an early heat wave and endless rainfall alone up in the air instead of in a comfortable home with her family.

Her protest has drawn little attention and, if anything, it raises questions as to why an activist would risk her life in a futile effort to show support for dismissed workers at Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction.

What point does she want to make with her extreme action - that workers were being victimized by roaring-hot furnaces to maintain the country’s position as a shipping powerhouse? Or does she want to bring attention to the uncomfortable truth about how laborers are treated behind the rich national facade?

But a G-20 country does not have the time or patience to listen to her.

The story is playing out in a country that prides itself on having an average per capita income of $20,000. The nation that jumped for joy over the successful effort by politicians, businesses and ordinary citizens to win the 2018 Winter Olympic Games for Pyeongchang, Gangwon, has kept its sights deliberately away from the lonely crane protester in Busan.

The demonstrator refuses to come down, even though unionists reached a deal with the management last month and ended the strike against layoff plans.

Newspapers and broadcasters have been ignoring her solo protest and Busan citizens are shaking their heads at her obstinacy.

But we cannot move on to the next advanced economic stage without passing the test of the 20th century labor problem. It is not just a labor issue. It raises questions about the fundamental values that could determine the country’s future viability. Before fully embracing the era of capital hegemony - and if we want to be a country welcomed by the global market - we first must pay heed to voices in the workplace.

Korea has galloped into a fast-track economy without tackling problems at industrial work sites. A sit-in crane protest at the Hyundai Heavy Industries shipyard in 1990 was over demands for the reinstatement of laid-off workers. In 1998, layoffs and turning 12,000 workers into part-time workers stirred a strike at the Hyundai Motor factory, which stopped production for four months. The same scene played out at Ssangyong Motors in 2009.

Carrying out mass layoffs is a common tactic for Korean companies, but they are a harsh reality for workers. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, on the other hand, has been too preoccupied with political activities and the rights of permanent workers to come up with a better solution for part-time workers.

Many industrial companies have moved overseas to avoid the hassle and clashes. But labor sites overseas have problems as well.

The Hanjin Heavy Industry and Construction shipyard in Subic Bay, the Philippines, has seen 24 deaths over the last five years. Local labor activists call the Korean-run shipyards “graveyards.”

A factory in Guatemala owned by Sampoong Apparel was called a “Bermuda triangle” 20 years ago due to factory workers disappearing. It is a serious problem if Korean capital remains stigmatized as a ruthless labor exploiter. We still regard foreign capital as a predator.

But Korean capitalists may also be viewed in such an unfavorable light on foreign soil.

The decades-old problem resurfaced in December at the Hanjin shipyard in Busan. The struggling shipbuilder took the drastic measure of sacking 400 workers. The workers protested the layoffs.

The labor activist in Busan went up on the crane to demonstrate against Korea Inc. resorting to massive layoffs for every corporate problem. She remembered how a compatriot had died for the same reason in 2003.

Germany and Sweden went through similar industrial pains. Their governments stepped in to resolve the impasse between corporations and labor. Politicians campaigned for “flexi-curity” to provide a monthly allowance and retraining programs for laid-off workers.

Both the German and Swedish labor departments take good care of workers. The Korean government - as much as tending to tuition fees and school lunches - has a bigger duty to protect the workforce.

It wasn’t the intimidating thousands of riot police and helicopters encircling the crane that brought the 70 workers down during the 1990 protest in the Ulsan shipyard. It was a simple plea to come home from one of the ailing mothers of the workers resonating through the loudspeaker.

But now there is genuine concern - and only a promise between the company and Korean society to work things out together will bring the protester back to the ground.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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