Yang Kyung Kyu’s Year in Reflection

We wrap up our Year in Reflection with an extended reflection by Mr. Yang Kyung Kyu, the former Vice President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and currently an Advisor to the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers Union (KPTU).

In 2022, which workers’ struggle in Asia would you like to highlight?

The general strike in Korea’s public sector since November 2022 is important enough to attract our attention.

The government of President Yoon Seok-yeol, who came into power in March 2022, announced that reducing workers’ rights and taming the labour movement are the primary goals of the government’s labour policy.

The major components of Yoon’s labour policy include 1) relaxing regulation over the employment of fixed-term and dispatched workers, 2) allowing primary contractors to avoid taking responsibility for major industrial accidents, 3) revising the minimum wage system in favour of employers, 4) removing criminal punishment provisions from laws regulating employers’ unfair labour practices, and 5) allowing substitute workers in the event of a strike.

In addition, the government is taking measures to increase labour intensity and deteriorate working conditions in the public sector by limiting new recruitment and abandoning the policy to regularise public sector irregular workers, which became a trend despite sluggish development in the last few years.

In response, the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers Union (KPTU) prepared a general strike. Railway workers, subway workers and cargo truckers went on strike in November 2022. Among them, the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division’s strike could significantly impact the entire Korean society as the workers take care of logistics across Korea.

Despite their importance to the national economy, cargo truckers have suffered from the low-fare policy and multi-level subcontracting structure, which exposed them to excessive working hours and, therefore, a high level of industrial accidents. To change it, they fought for the “freight charge system for safe operation” and have reached an agreement with the industry and the previous government for the initial three-year implementation of the system until the end of 2022.

Against truckers’ anticipation for the new freight charge system to be a permanent establishment, Yoon’s government proposed conditional renewal or termination of the deal. Refusing to accept the proposal that threatens road safety and deteriorates truckers’ livelihood, the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union went into a general strike with a demand for a full-scale implementation of the freight charge system for safe operation.

As soon as cargo truckers went on strike, they had to face the government seeking to resolve the conflict through nothing but suppression by issuing back-to-work orders to the striking drivers and threatening penal sanctions. The response of the government is, at best, contradictory. The government treats them as self-employed and deprives them of the right to strike, on the one hand. But it gives them back-to-work orders as if they are workers, on the other hand, effectively forcing them to work against their will.

The strike of cargo truckers has a significant implication. First, it is a struggle of workers in “special employment” whose dubious legal status, despite the intrinsic nature of their work to the national economy, does not allow them to enjoy fundamental labour rights, including the right to strike.

Second, it has also become a protest against forced labour prohibited by the International Labour Organization (ILO). That is why the ILO has shown speedy intervention in this matter, expressing its concern about the possible violation of core ILO conventions ratified by the Korean government.

Third, this struggle of cargo truckers has an important implication for the labour rights of platform workers, who are, amid the so-called fourth industrial revolution and the blooming AI industry, quickly increasing in number but becoming a large blind spot of labour rights protection.

Last but not least, this strike is critical as it calls for a fundamental solution to fatal industrial accidents in Korea, which have been dwarfing all other industrialised economies for decades. The regime strives to turn this strike into an excuse for a full-scale attack on the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

In this sense, this strike can be a decisive moment for the future of the Korean labour movement.

What is one labor issue that is not given enough attention?

The greatest wish of all workers in all countries is to have their right to collective action and strike fully guaranteed. In particular, securing the right to strike cannot be more important in Asia, where the living conditions of workers are poor.

The most powerful weapon used by capital to limit the right to strike is to file damage lawsuits after workers’ strike action. These lawsuits often involve an astronomical amount of monetary compensation no workers can afford. The government or judicial authorities use the rule of law as an excuse to legitimise such damages litigations, which causes unspeakable suffering to workers and efficiently incapacitate trade unions.

Filing a lawsuit against financial damage ‘done’ by strike action became a routine practice in Korea. It left many workers and unionists no choice but to commit suicides after years of suffering. Korea’s labour movement has been attempting to address it through public petitions and protests, but so far, without success.

Recently, the labour movement has resumed its battle to legislate a law to prevent such lawsuits against strike participants after observing a series of litigations, such as the US$ 2.5 million claim against strikers in Ssanyong Motors. The new law pursued by the labour movement is called the “Yellow Envelope Act”, the name of which originated from the yellow-coloured envelopes that supporters used to deliver their donations to striking workers in the past.

Trade unions, progressive civic groups, and progressive political parties are concentrating their efforts on the Yellow Envelope Act. To this end, they are submitting petitions to revise the legal regulations (Article 2, Article 3 of the Trade Union Act) that arbitrarily determine the illegality of strikes, proposing legislation through political parties and promoting a nationwide campaign by organising sit-ins in front of the National Assembly.

The struggle for the Yellow Envelope Act to prevent damages lawsuits that thoroughly destroy the right to strike is not simply a struggle in Korea but a necessary struggle for all workers in Asia.

Is there any insight you would like to share?

It was a year in which I realised that international solidarity for the labour movement was more urgent than ever. The need for international solidarity of labour movements against the global unfolding of labour flexibility and oppression of labour movements by authoritarian states is not new to us.

However, in places like Asia, where the intensification of such trends is creating new norms, the need for international solidarity acquires urgency. In particular, the oppression of labour activists and the disbanding of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) after the introduction of the National Security Law reaffirmed that we need to build much stronger intra-Asia solidarity.

The deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong also hit Asia Monitor Resource Centre (AMRC) hard in Hong Kong. The AMRC has been instrumental for the last 46 years to many Asian organisations fighting for improved labour rights, gender equality, and democratic and independent labour movements. Solidarity among Asian labour movements could rebuild AMRC, and we managed to relocate to Seoul in September 2022.

I believe this is a small but precious victory to remember. Many of us here in South Korea anticipate that it can offer a firmer stepping stone for labour solidarity across Asia, and we will make an effort to turn this anticipation into reality so that it can shine in our journey to improve living and working conditions in this continent of labour where more than half of global workers are living.

What should we be watching in 2023?

The most noteworthy thing in 2023 will be how to overcome the control over Asian workers and labour movements, which will be reshaped in various ways amidst the fluctuating world order. The world order is changing. Politically, the US-centred unipolar system has created many cracks within it, intensifying the US-China confrontation and increasing the possibility of a new Cold War to emerge.

The economic downturn will continue with supply chain disruptions and energy and commodity crises. The climate crisis will be accelerated, offsetting piecemeal changes made by efforts for carbon neutrality.

The so-called Taiwan-strait crisis and North Korea’s nuclear armament will build a more contentious relationship between the US and China. As security and the economy are increasingly tied together, these security threats will also amplify the size and width of the economic crisis in every economy in Asia.

Domestically, these changes will likely lead to the rise of authoritarian governments, the retreat of democracy, and the introduction of more restrictive control over workers and labour movements in all countries.

It is time to build broader solidarity for peace among trade unions, concerned civic organisations, and progressive political parties in Asian countries in response to the deteriorating international environment.

The year 2023 will be a moment when neoliberalism and protectionism intersect, which increasingly threatens workers’ right to live. It is time to think about how to create lively international solidarity among the people of Asia instead of leaving the fate of Asia to the violent transformation driven by the state and capital.