As they wage a tireless battle against Sirius Satellite Radio, a small band of Korean unionists offers a grim lesson on how corporations have put the screws to workers.
A group of women who assemble radios for Sirius in Seoul, South Korea, organized a union three years ago after the company made the women work 13-hour days, six to seven days a week. Pay was only $3.62 an hour in the capital city, where the cost of living is similar to that of New York.
Their bosses at the Kiryung Electronics Factory responded by firing the union organizers and threatening to fire anyone who had worked at the factory less than a year. That was most of them. Only 10 of 250 assembly-line workers were permanent. The rest were “dispatch” workers whose jobs are more precarious than those of their U.S. counterparts.
In South Korea, these temps – dispatched to firms by agencies that recruit and place them – can be fired for any reason. What’s more, they lack the legal protections guaranteed to other workers and make half as much as permanent workers.
Today, there are about 8.6 million dispatch workers in the country. Close to two-thirds of the work force does not have permanent employment status.
Kiryung hired mostly women. It gave three-month contracts to married women, presumably so they could be fired if they became pregnant. Unmarried women received six-month contracts. Management’s policy was to fire one dispatch worker every week, to “keep the waters clean,” according to an October report from the National Labor Committee, a New York-based labor research and advocacy group.
“People were fired for the pettiest reasons,” says Seok-Soon Oh, a Kiryung worker. “The supervisor would just say he didn’t like your face, you were too fat.”
Managers sometimes wouldn’t even tell them face-to-face that they were going to be fired. Pink slips would arrive via text message, says Hye-Won Chong, international director for the Korean Metal Workers Union, which represents the workers.
The National Labor Committee reported that Kiryung supervisors kept production quotas so high that women couldn’t take bathroom breaks. Shifts could stretch to 38 hours, but workers received only two 10-minute breaks, in addition to meals.
“People were terrified. If you were sick, you took some pills and kept working,” Oh says. “Once a co-worker collapsed and the boss sent her home, and said, ‘Don’t bother coming back.’ ”
Three years ago, when Kiryung tried to break the union by firing almost everyone in the plant, the women occupied the factory for 55 days. As is common in Korea, managers called in riot police and drove them off the premises. The strikers set up camp outside the main gate, where they have remained for three years.
This summer, 35 workers launched a hunger strike, and the union’s leader stretched it to 94 days until she was carried to the hospital in late September. She then started her fast anew.
Unable to impress their demands on the factory’s management, the strikers looked higher up the corporate food chain. Since Kiryung’s radios are sold exclusively to Sirius Satellite Radio, a delegation of Kiryung workers and union activists flew to New York in October to ask Sirius to force Kiryung to the bargaining table. Like many corporations, Sirius dictates terms to its suppliers, such as Kiryung. (Korean managers are reportedly now under pressure to shift production to China.)
Although Sirius didn’t acknowledge its Korean visitors, no sooner did strikers show up at its Manhattan offices – with traditional drums and banners – that protesters learned company goons were stampeding through the strikers’ encampment in Korea. Oh says the thugs stomped on and strangled some of the women strikers.
When Korea suffered its financial meltdown 11 years ago, the country’s leaders accepted an International Monetary Fund-led bailout of $58.4 billion to end the economic freefall. The program forced austerity on the country’s workers to shore up “investor confidence.”
One of the government’s first steps was to dissolve the country’s labor laws. Korea’s industrial chieftains used the new rules to attack job security and pay. They fired waves of permanent workers and hired cheaper, non-union temporary workers to replace them. With more than 8 million temps in the country, it’s no surprise Kiryung is fighting this group so intensely.
“They know millions of Korean workers are in the same situation,” Oh says. “If we win, they can, too.”