Dec 13, 2010
On November 15th, temporary workers at the biggest Korean auto company, Hyundai Motors, went on strike. The biggest Korean companies owe their famous cost competitiveness to temporary workers, who make up almost half their production workers.
On average, temporary workers get less than half the weekly pay of permanent workers doing the same jobs, but work longer hours. They have no legally mandated benefits or union rights, and can be laid off without compensation.
At Hyundai Motors, more than 8,000 of the 42,000 production workers are temps. The law provides that after two years in a company, temp workers have the right to be made regular. But the big corporations like Hyundai have always ignored the law, with the complicity of the justice system.
Last July, the South Korean Supreme Court overturned a decision which had allowed Hyundai to violate this law. Although symbolic, this decision was interpreted by many temporary workers as announcing the end of the discrimination against them.
All at once, temporary workers’ unions, which led an almost underground existence at three Hyundai plants, tripled the number of their members to 2,500. These unions launched a campaign to transform all the temps into regular workers, with speeches and demonstrations at the plant gates and to win the support of the regular workers.
Finally, on November 15th, following another provocation, temps on the assembly line occupied their factory in Ulsan. Management called out both the police and its private militia. This is all it took for the strike to spread like wild-fire to the four other Ulsan assembly plants and to those in Jeonju and Asan.
The movement continued for about a month. In Ulsan itself, 2,000 strikers carried out a permanent sit-in which paralyzed the assembly lines. Every day, support demonstrations were organized in front of three plants.
For its part, the Korean Metalworkers Union at its November 22nd convention decided to have a vote of its members for a national strike in December to support the Hyundai part timers. After this announcement, Hyundai responded by suing the temporary workers’ union, demanding compensation of 1.2 million dollars, while the government issued an order aimed against seven strike militants, calling the strike illegal.
On December 9th, the temporary workers’ unions and the country’s largest union agreed to suspend the strike with negotiations continuing. No matter how this fight turns out, one thing is clear. The stakes go well beyond Hyundai and the temporary workers. For more than two decades the Korean bourgeoisie has imposed this type of super-exploitation on the whole Korean working class. To reverse this relationship of forces, the Korean working class needs all the energy that it can put into the movement.