[Viewpoint] Some lambs need to be sacrificed

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[Viewpoint] Some lambs need to be sacrificed

The “Bus for Hope” demonstrations, which started as a labor conflict and developed into a social movement, were much publicized both at home and abroad last year. A caravan of buses filled with poster-bearing protestors stormed the shipyard of Hanjin Heavy Industries in Busan for the same number of days that one of its disgruntled employees staged an aerial sit-in protest there atop a crane.

Kim Jin-sook, dubbed the “salt flower” lady after her book on blue-collar workers’ hardships turned her into something of a modern-day heroine in Korea, famously made the yard’s crane No. 85 her home for no less than 300 days. She finally ended her protest in November once the union and management had reached an agreement on rehiring laid-off workers amid mounting political and social pressure. But the story did not ultimately provide a happy ending for either the company or its workers.

The labor union divided into two camps before the recently ended Lunar New Year’s holiday. Making use of a new labor law that permits multiple unions within the same company - which took effect last July 1 - a new, more flexible union was formed to coexist with the militant umbrella union of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), in which Kim had been a representative. Of 703 unionists, 510 shifted to the new union, dealing a heavy blow to the more militant group. The KCTU accused the company of plotting to kill the existing union, but in fact it arose from the desire of employees anxious about losing their jobs if labor strife were to continue undermining Hanjin Heavy’s viability.

Since the “Bus of Hope” rallies, Hanjin Heavy has not received a single new order. The shipyard is currently staying afloat by building three small military fleets. Due to absence of work, half of its shipbuilding workforce, or 350 employees, are on leave. The company itself is a sinking ship, having had to pay billions of won in the form of penalties for failing to deliver seven ships on time due to the prolonged strike. Orders for four ships, which strikers claimed were part of a scam organized by the company, were also scrapped.

Now despair, not hope, prevails over the Busan-based shipyard. Workers there live in a state of constant fear. The dockyard is 50-meters (165-feet) wide and 300 meters long, meaning it is too small to build cargo ships with a capacity larger than 6,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).

But demand these days is surging for 10,000-TEU container ships and larger. Dockyards run by its domestic rivals Hyundai, Daewoo and Samsung Heavy Industries can turn out vessels with capacities of up to 18,000 TEU. But Hanjin Heavy’s shipyard cannot build an oil tanker more than 60 meters wide. Its specialty narrows down to midsized vessels and bulk cargo ships, but orders for these types of ships are swept up by Chinese shipyards, which offer cheaper manufacturing costs. Hanjin Heavy cannot beat them in terms of price competitiveness as its pays its workers an annual average of 60 million won ($53,000), which compares unfavorably to the 5 million won that Chinese workers in the same industry receive.

Hyundai Heavy recently relocated thousands of its shipyard workers to an overseas maritime plant due to falling international ship prices, and increasing demand in the maritime plant market. This is something that Hanjin Heavy could only dream of. Not only is its construction business equally shaky due to an industry-wide slump, but its laid-off shipbuilding workers will soon be returning to work under the agreement - only to find there is no work waiting for them. In other words, unless there is a sudden boom in the global shipbuilding market, Hanjin Heavy may follow the path of many midsized shipbuilders by going into court receivership.

The lady of the crane, and the opposition camp that capitalized on her protest for political purposes, both got what they wanted, but everyone else lost out. If Hanjin Heavy goes bankrupt and requires a bailout, taxpayers will eventually have to foot the bill. The KCTU would also lose one of its key unions, which, intoxicated by its own success regarding the caravan protest, moved on to Jeju to protest the construction of a naval base there.

This whole sequence of events points to several mistakes and shortcomings. First, Hanjin Heavy wasted its precious resources and energy last year battling labor disputes, when it should have focused on corporate restructuring. Soon, the banner cries to reinstate workers may change to even louder calls to save the entire workplace.

Second, this highlights the collective gullibility of Korean society, as the public was effectively duped by the “Bus of Hope” protesters’ demands, when the priority should have been preserving the company itself. This brings to mind Monk Jiyeul and her years-long protest against a government plan to build a tunnel through Mount Cheonseong for bullet trains, based on the logic that the area is full of rare clawed salamanders. All this achieved was delaying construction of the tunnel, which later proved to have no significant impact on the local flora and fauna.

Now the protestors are at work again in the fishing town of Gangjeong, Jeju, where they are threatening to waste more taxpayers’ money by delaying a much-needed project to safeguard the transportation of oil and other supplies in key sea lanes in nearby waters. The project’s budget of 3 billion won, which is financed by tax money, will be money down the drain if the demonstrators refuse to budge. It is time to approach rhetorical slogans like hope and environmental conservation with due care and deal with the uncomfortable reality head-on.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho
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