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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Flexibilisation: the biggest issue for the Korean left

For the last few months I've managed to studiously avoid what is almost certainly the major issue of the moment for the South Korean left and the labour movement: the awkward-to-translate problem of 'non-regular' workers (비정규노동자). This is probably because I'm quite lazy and I didn't want to do the research and write something proper about the subject. On the other hand it's not an issue that can be ignored, particularly as the National Assembly is in the process of passing a bill which will worsen conditions for non-regular workers.

Fortunately, Jamie at Two Koreas has come to the rescue with an excellent article on the struggle against 'flexibilisation' (a better translation methinks) in Korea. A taster:
The use of casual and contract workers was greatly expanded after the 1997 monetary crisis when the then President Kim Young-Sam administration passed a series of new labor laws, one of which allowed for companies in specific sectors to hire greater numbers of temporary and contract workers, including during times of labor action, causing an almost overnight rise in the number of temporary staffing agencies.

The KCTU claims that with the introduction of these temporary agencies, exploitation of temporary workers and job insecurity greatly increased. They also claim that under the guise of sub-contracting workers, practices of illegally hiring and laying-off of temporary workers have also become prevalent. [6]

Since the 1997 crisis, employer’s groups have been advocating greater flexibility in using irregular workers. According to the Korea Herald, the current labor minister Kim Dae-Hwan has also promoted further labor market reforms, and has pushed for the implementation of the recent government-initiated bills.
For more intrepid readers, here are some resources in Korean on this subject:
  • The Democratic Labour Party's special site on non-regular workers.
  • The KCTU announces today that it and its fellow trade union federation (FKTU) are launching an all-out struggle for the rights of non-regular workers. There's also quite a bit on the subject in English in the April edition of the KCTU's English newsletter.
  • Ta Hamkke newspaper has been covering the subject very regularly, including on the front page of their most recent edition.
This struggle is really about the most basic level of the confrontation between capital and labour. The question being posed is: can Korean capital take a greater share of surplus value by forcing down wages and conditions? As is the case all over the world, one of the favourite tools in the neo-liberal box for this purpose is the casualisation or flexibilisation of labour. If pushed through successfully, it also has the added bonus of weakening labour organisation, thus providing further opportunities for capital to squeeze more out of workers for less compensation with less resistance.

In fact, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that the future of the Korean left and the labour movement as a whole may rest upon the struggle to organise non-regular workers and defend their rights. Capitalism doesn't stand still - it's a constantly evolving organism and thus the working class itself and the focus of its struggles is also changing. If organisations like the KCTU and the Democratic Labour Party do not respond to these changes, the danger is that their base could narrow drastically and they could find themselves bureaucratised, corrupted or just irrelevant (there are disturbing signs of this already). As I wrote a while ago, this is one of the warnings that comes from the fate of the Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and its near complete capitulation to neo-liberalism.


At June 21, 2005 7:03 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

I just read Martin Hart-Landsberg's presentation to the dlp, it's on their site and I linked it on my last two koreas post. Situates the non-regular issue in the context of the 97 crisis and beyond. Though I think he makes a mistabke, he starts to criticize the unions by saying that the issue shouldn't be mainly considered a workplace democracy issue but that some wider structural change needs to be considered (agreed) but then he doesn't go on and articulate what exactly he means. Unless he was just hinting at some kind of grassroots revolution or something. We should come up with a term for this, maybe revolution baiting (ohh that sounds reactionary), but you've probably seen it a lot where someone starts to criticize but then offers no more effective alternative even though every indication is given that the author has, indeed, a proposal. Anyways, it's a good read regardless, brings in the international context a little--curious what you think. In my opinion fighting the NRW issue as a workplace democracy issue is important, non-regular workers have no proper labour rights in this regard.

At June 21, 2005 11:19 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

I've discovered that is a great way of not getting around to reading things - I put Martin Hart-Landsberg's piece on there a few days ago and haven't got around to it yet.

My own personal jury is still out on him, but I have to say that I tried to read some of his book from a few years ago on the North-South conflict and found it rather 'woolly'. Defining North Korea as 'state socialism' just seems like a non-definition to me.

Anyway, perhaps I can comment some more when I've actually read his presentation.


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