South Korean unions angry at the death of a young worker!

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Kim’s mother speaking at a rally in front of pictures of her son taken just before his death at work
Kim’s mother speaking at a rally in front of pictures of her son taken just before his death at work

THE KPTU (Korean Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers’ Unions) has issued the following statement on the measures announced by the South Korean government and ruling party (February 5) in relation to the death of Kim Yong-gyun.

Kim Yong-gyun, a 24-year-old subcontracted worker died after getting stuck in a coal conveyer belt at the Taen Power plant in South Korea. Kim was working alone in the dark, doing extremely dangerous work including cleaning coal out from under the fast-moving conveyer belt.

According to the health and safety rules in the manual, Kim should have been working in a team of two. However, excessive cost-cutting following the outsourcing of power plant fuel operations and maintenance means that this work is now done alone. The KPTU statement said: ‘58 days have passed since precariously-employed young worker and his funeral has still not been held.

It has been 15 days since leaders of the Civil Society Coalition for Justice for Precarious Young Worker Kim Yong-gyun (civil society coalition) began their hunger strike calling for a resolution to this incident. Today, February 5 – New Years Day – the government and ruling party announced measures in response to Kim’s death.

The measures the government announced today fall far short of the demands that the civil society coalition, power plant workers and Kim’s family have been making, which include eradication of the outsourcing of danger, investigation in to the causes of Kim’s death and punishment of those responsible, insourcing and permanent direct employment for all precarious workers in the power industry and other measures to ensure that a similar accident does not occur.

The KCTU Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) and the civil society coalition consulted with the government and ruling party in the development of a response, but the measures announced today are greatly lacking.

KPTU and the civil society coalition are deeply angered that the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and vested interests in the public institution bureaucracy, who have pursued privatisation and outsourcing for the last several decades, have not changed their attitude.

The measures announced today include permanent employment for Kim’s co-workers, but not directly by the five public power companies, but instead by a separate public corporation. No concrete plan for improving the situation of power plant light maintenance workers has been put forward, despite the fact that these workers experience an even higher accident rate.

We are gravely disappointed that we have not been able to completely counter the logic of capital and the public sector bureaucracy, which has led to the outsourcing of death. Nonetheless, following collective discussions KPTU, the civil society coalition and Kim’s co-workers have recognised that despite short-comings the government and ruling party’s announcement today represents progress in relation to their original position, which was a complete denial of any responsibility. Furthermore, we feel we cannot delay Kim’s funeral any longer.

We are clear, however, that we cannot not simply rely on the government and ruling party to stop the killing of precarious workers caused by the outsourcing of death, instead we recognise that it is our task to achieve this goal ourselves by uniting through our democratic and continuing to struggle.

It is also true that it would not have been possible to achieve the measures announced today without the unity of purpose of workers, the public, Kim’s family and co-workers who came together with the civil society coalition and fought as one. Through this struggle we were able to win recognition of the principles of ending the outsourcing of danger and accountability of the principle company in the case of accidents involving subcontracted workers.

The principle company (Korea Western Power) has agreed to ensure that subcontract workers are paid the wages originally agreed to, thus eliminating intermediary exploitation, and improve working conditions. Expanding the application of these principles throughout the public sector and to the private sector as well is an important task before us.

Our struggle has formed the basis from which to challenge and reverse the drive towards fragmentation and privatisation pursued by government bureaucrats.

And we have achieved the transfer of all fuelling and equipment operation workers like Kim to direct employment by a public corporation.

In addition we have achieved the establishment of a special investigation committee to investigate the causes of Kim’s death and the government, ruling party and employer have agreed to follow the recommendations of this committee.

Given that so many problems have been left unsolved, the work of this committee to fully diagnose the situation and put forward recommendations for a fundamental solution in the future is vitally important. An agreement on the direct, permanent employment of light maintenance workers must also be reached.

Another important result of this tragedy was that the Occupation Safety and Health Act, which applies not only to power plants or the public sector, but to all workers, was revised for the first time in 30 years. All workers are in debt to Kim Yong-gyun for this.

More than anything else, we ask the Korean public not to forget the things taught us over the last 50 days by Kim’s death and by the struggle of his co-workers and his mother, Kim Mi-suk, and family.

We have learned clearly that the outsourcing of danger and death must be stopped at all workplaces, regardless of whether they are in the public or private sector. The system which divides workers between principle companies and subcontractors, designating them permanent or precarious, must end.

We express our gratitude to all KCTU members, workers, members of the public and the international community who participated in this struggle with us. The struggle of KPTU and the civil society coalition to stop the misuse of precarious workers and the outsourcing of danger and to create safe workplaces where workers’ lives are not sacrificed will continue.

We ask you to remember Kim’s tragic death and continue to fight with us until we realise the goals that were not achieved today. Recognising that these tasks are the duties of our democracy, we promise you that KPTU and Kim’s co-workers will do everything we can to fulfil our responsibility by continuing to stand at the forefront of a renewed struggle.’

  • Samsung workers in South Korea who have suffered serious health problems have been flooding a website set up to handle requests for compensation after a mediation agreement – the result of a decade-long fight by Samsung employees and their families – was signed late last year.

Former Samsung worker Han Hye-kyung is hopeful it will allow her and her mother to move to an apartment that can accommodate her wheelchair. 

‘It is hard for Hye-kyung to climb stairs and go up and down all the time,’ said Kim Sinyeo, her mother and caregiver.

The 40-year-old has lived with a disability since 2005, following surgery to remove a brain tumour. She can’t walk, has blurry vision, body tremors and a speech impediment. Han and her mother say the tumour was the result of her six years working in one of Samsung’s chip and display factories in South Korea. 

‘I am really unable to do anything without my mother. I really can’t,’ Han said.

Samsung apologised last November, acknowledging that it had failed to ‘sufficiently manage health threats’ to its local factory workers. The company’s apology was part of an agreement to compensate sick workers and the families of those who died.

Under the agreement, payments will be made for blood disorders, cancers, pulmonary conditions and brain tumours suffered by employees who have worked at Samsung’s chip and LCD factories since 1984. The compensation also covers miscarriages and congenital illnesses of the workers’ children. The top payout is 150 million won ($175,300 Cdn).

‘Compensation is important, but what is more important is prevention,’ said Hwang Sang-ki, whose daughter, Yu-mi, died of leukaemia in 2007 after working at Samsung for just two years. ‘We need to strengthen work safety laws to ensure that workers and others know what kind of substances they are handling and give them the right to know.’

In South Korea, Samsung is everywhere. It builds ships and buildings, sells life insurance, owns an advertising agency and the country’s largest theme park. Samsung’s presence is so pervasive that locals say they live in ‘the Republic of Samsung.’