South Korean and Indian workers fight for union recognition

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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In South Korea, that supposed bastion of capitalist ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, public-sector workers are battling to win recognition for their Government Employees Union.

At the end of January, 16 days into his hunger strike, the president of the union collapsed and was rushed into hospital, only for the hunger strike to be taken up by other union leaders.

Workers were demanding that South Korea’s then president-elect Park Guen-hye should recognise their union and reinstate their sacked leaders.

Meanwhile, in the service sector, some two million workers are systematically deprived of the job protections enjoyed (in theory) by permanent staff, thanks to a widespread policy of short-term contracts, casualisation and the rebranding of workers as self-employed ‘contractors’. On the pretence that workers such as teachers and service-sector workers are really ‘employers’, they are banned from union activity.

Currently spearheading the protests against this injustice are tutors employed by JEI corporation in Seoul, who are struggling to get recognition for the Korean Tutors’ and Education Labourers’ Union.

The union was formed in 1999, certified by the ministry of labour and even won a collective agreement with the company. Yet in 2005 the country’s supreme court overturned all this, declaring that instructors did not count as workers. Given the green light, the company tore up the collective agreement and derecognised the union.

Then began a six year battle against JEI Corporation, with workers demanding the reinstatement of 11 sacked union activists, recognition of their union and restoration of the collective agreement reneged on by the company. The latest move in this long and bitter struggle was a freezing rooftop protest by two of the sacked workers, which began in February and at the last report had lasted over three weeks and was still going.

Two women braved chilblains in icy conditions as they occupied a bell tower opposite the company and unfurled banners demanding reinstatement. Such proletarian resolve is a more reliable index of their class status than the sophistry of judges serving the interests of the exploiters.

Maruti Suzuki in India

No less sharp has been the struggle of the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union in India’s Haryana state over the past 18 months.

In 2011, workers fought to get the car workers’ union recognised by management and registered by Haryana state. (The state registration requirement is a lovingly preserved hangover from colonial rule, and is a legal prerequisite for recognition.)

In pursuit of this goal workers went on strike for a total of 59 days and occupied their Gurgaon factory (just on the outskirts of New Delhi) for 13 days. Under this pressure in early 2012 the company agreed to recognise the union, but insisted as a precondition on the resignation of two of the union’s ablest organisers.

Workers found that registration (and therefore recognition) was still not happening, but in March 2012 worker militancy sufficiently unnerved the company for it to (illegally!) recognise the unregistered union.

Encouraged by this success, workers pressed on, putting their demands to management. These however were brushed aside in favour of a unilateral statement of intent, which flatly refused to accept the workers’ chief demands, in particular their main demand that all contract workers be made permanent (given that steady work was available for them year-round).

This contemptuous refusal to engage in collective bargaining, following on such a lengthy period of struggle and sacrifice for the most basic union rights, raised the temperature to such a degree that on 18 July last year, when a row blew up over an insulting remark made by a supervisor about a worker’s caste status, anger boiled over.

Someone set fire to the plant, there were many broken bones and one supervisor perished through smoke inhalation. The reaction of both company and state was blanket repression, with mass sackings and a hundred paramilitaries provided by the state to patrol the shop floors during each shift.

Announcing an all-India day of support for Maruti Suzuki workers on 5 February, the provisional working committee of the Maruti Suzuki Workers Union explained:

Since 18 July 2012, after the unfortunate incident in the factory premises as part of a management-woven conspiracy, we workers have been continually facing the brunt of repression. The company-management has at once terminated the jobs of over 1500 contract workers along with 546 permanent workers. They have, with the help of the state administration, heaped fabricated cases ranging from arson to murder on 211 of our fellow workers, while 149 workers, including our entire union leadership, have continued to languish in jail for the last six months. Keeping aside all legality, we workers and our families have continuously faced brute police atrocities.

Confronted with this unholy alliance of capitalist company and capitalist state, the workers went on to courageously declare:

We have chosen the path of struggle against this repression and injustice. In the past six months, even when faced with various state administrative blockades and repression, our spirits are unfazed and our movement is raging on.

One of the reasons that we are able to sustain this struggle is also the solidarity and support that we have continued to receive from various workers’ organisations, trade unions and pro-people forces. But to take the struggle forward, we require more support and solidarity from your side.