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Korea Boom Is a Bust for Much of the Work Force

February 15, 1987|Jack Epstein | Jack Epstein of Berkeley writes on Asian and Latin America issues

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — From a war-wrecked agricultural pauper, South Korea has emerged as the "next Japan." Its cities gleam with steel plants, automated factories and skyscrapers. But this hard-working nation of 42 million may falter in Japan's footsteps because of a problem its Asian neighbor lacks--a restive work force.

Church groups, opposition politicians and students are mounting a labor-rights movement that could undermine Korea's "economic miracle." They complain of long hours, few days off, low wages, unpaid overtime, unsafe working situations and government repression of labor activists.

South Korea's economic growth rate has averaged a remarkable 8.4% annually since 1962. Exports of consumer electronics, textiles, shoes, cars and microchips in 1985 were worth about $30 billion, making South Korea the world's 12th-largest trading nation. South Korean video-cassette recorders, television sets, automobiles and steel have forced many Japanese companies to abandon the cheap end of production on world markets.

"The Korean workers preparedness to work long hours is the reason for their success," said a British diplomat. "You can't get people in our country to do that."

Social scientists say this work ethic is rooted in 2,000 years of Confucian autocracy and attitudes that still regulate much of the daily pattern of life--devotion to elders, respect for order and obedience for authority without complaint.

"The four textile factories that I've been dealing with have no windows, holes in the walls, virtually no protection from chemicals that the workers breathe and a boss who pushes them from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.," said an American buyer of Korean products in Seoul. "Yet, most don't seem to complain."

Such conditions helped produce the Korean boom, which was fueled by low-cost manufacturing facilities and a highly disciplined, productive work force.

"The government believes that the only way to keep a competitive edge in the world market is to exploit the work force and maintain low wages," said Lee Gil Jae, general secretary of the Korean Christian Action Organization, a Catholic and Protestant group that works to improve living standards of laborers, peasants and slum dwellers.

In the past two years, labor unrest has sharply increased. In April, 1985, thousands of auto workers seized the Daewoo Motors plant (whose cars will be available in the United States in early 1987 as Pontiac LeMans models through General Motors dealerships). This was the first big organized protest in heavy manufacturing since President Chun Doo Hwan seized power in a 1980 military coup.

Two months after the Daewoo demonstration, thousands of women workers picketed alongside students at the Kuro textile factory in Seoul. "At that time, the Kuro rally was the largest joint protest of students and laborers in the history of the labor movement," said Lee Shin Bom, a former labor activist who spent six years in Korean prisons and is now director of the Asia Commission for the Washington-based International Center for Development Policy.

The Daewoo and Kuro incidents were among 265 labor disputes reported in 1985, up from 113 incidents in 1984, according to the U.S. State Department.

Workers were even more militant in 1986. Last May thousands of industrial workers protested working conditions in the western port city of Inchon, culminating in a confrontation with riot police wielding clubs and iron bars. Reporters described the scene as the most serious civil disturbance since the bloody 1980 Kwangju revolt, in which protesters seized the city government.

Unsanctioned unions are proliferating as an alternative to the government-controlled Federation of Korean Trade Unions and its 16 affiliates. In the first six months of 1986, these underground unions helped organize more than 40 illegal strikes by such diverse groups as bus and taxi drivers and textile and electronic workers. Many strike leaders were arrested and are still in jail. The emergence of such unions was spurred by labor-code revisions, enacted soon after Chun assumed power, that made strikes and union independence seem more difficult than everbut more necessary than before.

These new labor syndicates rely on militant church groups and students. The Korean Christian Workers Federation, for example, is organizing a nationwide system of underground unions to put students in factory jobs so they can organize on the front lines. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, some 1,500 students are believed to be active in the underground labor movement.

University students, however, are legally barred from factory work. According to the Labor Ministry, 350 students were fired from various plants during the first five months of 1986 for "concealing their college background." The ministry recently warned that force would be used to close down 14 of the underground unions if they did not "voluntarily disband."

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