Half a million to walk off the job . . .
Tensions are rising as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the larger of South Korea’s two umbrella labour organizations, presses forward with a general strike and rallies in Seoul tomorrow, with participants expected to number more than 550,000. These figures would far exceed previous demonstrations this year, which were declared illegal under COVID-19 rules and led to the arrest of KCTU’s leader last month. The strike centres around 15 demands, including the abolition of irregular employment, revision of the labour code, and nationalization of industries facing significant layoffs. The government called the planned rallies “irresponsible” given pandemic restrictions and vowed to deploy police and hold organizers responsible for illegal actions. Several student and business associations have also criticized the rallies. Labour actions – involving workers ranging from hospital professionals to Starbucks employees – have increased significantly in Korea since the pandemic.
Migrant labour woes . . .
Farms in South Korea are also struggling to harvest crops due to reduced foreign labour migration during the pandemic, resulting in rising food prices. Despite rising wages, migrant farm labourers face heavier workloads and longer hours on top of existing grievances about working conditions. Recently publicized internal government data suggests that officials are turning a blind eye to migrant labour abuses. In Busan and South Gyeongsang Province, for instance, while more than half of all businesses hiring migrant workers were found to have violated labour rules, only three were fined. Many worker complaints have been ignored, with one official telling an employer that they would “pretend not to have seen anything.”
An eye on presidential election . . .
While labour concerns and income inequality will factor heavily into South Korea’s 2022 presidential election, immigration is a touchy subject that candidates will likely try to avoid. Korea will likely not be able to avoid it for long, however. Around half of South Korean cities and towns are at risk of “extinction” as aging accelerates and young people leave for major urban centres. Fewer residents and workers in rural communities will likely increase the demand for migrant labour.
- The Korea Herald: Union to push ahead with strike despite mounting concerns
- The Korea Times: Farmers struggle with labor shortage as pandemic disrupts migrant work system
- Southeast Asia Globe: Death in a greenhouse