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Hankook worker shines spotlight on working conditions in South Korea

A whistle-blower at the tire plant, alarmed over co-workers' deaths, takes a stand. Public health experts say the case shows the dangers that exist in the South Korean workplace.

March 31, 2010|By John M. Glionna

Hankook officials said they have spent $30 million upgrading conditions, adding that inspectors from automotive clients like Ford and General Motors visit their plants for rigorous safety checks.

These officials said their employee death rate is lower than the national rate and the lowest in the industry. They say they try to transfer workers with diagnosed health issues, but some are reluctant to move because they are comfortable in their jobs.

Hankook has added to the number of medical professionals at the factory, but "we can't monitor employees to make sure they take their pills for a heart condition," public relations officer Cho said.

Act of betrayal

Jeong knew one thing for sure: Nobody was going to call him a hero for going public on conditions at Hankook Tire.

In South Korea, whistle-blowing -- or naebu gobalja -- carries negative connotations that are associated with betraying your employer more than with protecting the public good. But after 16 years with the company, Jeong decided not to fret about his own job security.

Conditions at Hankook Tire became a national story.

While his name was never revealed, Jeong says, he was eventually identified.

Jeong said punishment came swiftly. He was transferred from the factory floor to a lesser job and ostracized by management. But many workers supported him, he said.

Eventually, the company offered settlements to some families on the condition that they no longer talk about the subject, Jeong said.

But others have been ignored, he said. People like Oh Myung-sook, whose husband died in 2001. One evening, as her husband lay on the couch with his head on her lap, his breathing became labored.

She called for help, but he later died of unknown causes. Other than a $10,000 company condolence payment and $5,000 for funeral costs, she said, she's been left bereft.

"I lost a husband. But what can I do?" the 50-year-old social worker said, sobbing. "I can't knock down the door of a huge company. They're too powerful."

Although his future remains unclear, Jeong said he has no regrets about his activism.

"I'd do it again," he said. "I'd do it 100 times."

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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