South Korean workers defy protest ban

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SOUTH Korea’s umbrella labour unions are defying a government ban and have pledged to push ahead with organising another massive rally on December 5th, projecting that hundreds of thousands of protesters nationwide will convene in Seoul for the anti-government movement.

The upcoming demonstration, which follows a mass rally on November 14th, which came under violent attack from South Korea’s state forces, opposes government plans to introduce labour reforms detrimental to blue-collar and temporary workers.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which organised the mass November 14th rally and is to play a key role in the December 5th demonstration, said in a statement on Sunday that the government was ‘dictatorial’ to ban the convention and that it went against the right to freedom of assembly.

The KCTU further vowed to make the rally as ‘large as possible’ and said its members would launch a general strike if the government went ahead with its ‘formal guidelines’ for labour reform. Labour unions have lashed out at authorities for attempting to legalise the ‘peak wage system’, which gradually cuts wages for senior workers a few years before retirement, and permits employers to legally dismiss workers deemed to be under-performing.

Citing a domestic clause that gives authorities the right to ban a rally that ‘can potentially harm public safety’, police claimed last Saturday that the Korean Peasants League, one of the organisers of the December 5th rally, was responsible for turning the November 14th protests violent.

Police said anyone who convenes that day, despite the order to disperse, will be penalised and that organisers will be held legally responsible. On November 14th, approximately 68,000 people from 53 labour groups and organisations gathered in downtown Seoul to demand the government reform the labor market in favour of blue-collar and temporary workers, retract plans for state-authored history textbooks, ban rice imports and crack down on Korean conglomerates, among others.

One of the most violent moments came when Baek Nam-gi, a 68-year-old farmer from Boseong County, South Jeolla, was knocked down by a water canon and collapsed, losing consciousness before being taken to Seoul National University Hospital with a brain haemorrhage.

The administration of President Park Guen-hye has repeatedly sought to weaken the rights of workers and their unions since taking office in 2013, including mobilising police to disrupt protests and to arrest trade union leaders.

The increasingly authoritarian government has stepped up attacks on trade unions and their rights.

Police raided the offices of the KCTU Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) on November 6th, attacked participants in a mass demonstration against regressive new labour legislation on November 14th and followed that up by raiding the offices of eight KCTU affiliates on November 21st.

Two-hundred police raided the office of the KPTU on November 6th, seizing documents of the union’s Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol), whose members, transporting products for the food company Pulmone, are fighting for union recognition and safe working conditions.

Only protests by union members and officers blocked the police from extending the raid to other KPTU offices and the union secretariat. Arrest warrants were also issued and TrucksSol members taken into custody on November 11th.

On November 6th police raided the offices of the KCTU Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU), seizing documents and computers. Arrest warrants were issued and members taken into custody on November 11th.

On November 14th, police attempted to arrest KCTU President Han Sang-gyun at a press conference prior to using water cannon and pepper spray to attack the mass demonstration in Seoul by unions, farmers and civic groups.

The demonstration, the largest in Korea for many years, was organised to protest against proposed labour legislation which would facilitate layoffs and expand precarious employment contracts and also against the government’s support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement which threatens democracy.

And on November 21st police raided eight offices of the KCTU and its affiliates, seizing computers and documents. The IUF Korea office, located in the building which houses the KPTU, was also raided. The government is attempting to silence democratic criticism and force through anti-union legislation and an unpopular trade deal by restricting basic trade union and democratic rights.

The labour reforms pushed by the government would reduce payment for overtime work on days off, would permit temporary agency work in basic manufacturing (which has been illegal to date) and would lower the level of unemployment compensation for workers in low-wage short-term jobs.

Most recently, President Park invoked the threat of international terrorism to denounce protest leaders, suggesting that terrorists could take advantage of protests to launch attacks. Ahead of the upcoming December 5th anti-government rally, the police announced their intention to take heavy-handed measures against ‘violent’ demonstrators.

They announced a new plan last Monday in a press statement against what they labelled ‘illegal and violent protests’. They also threatened they would spray paint into the crowd at the upcoming rallies to ‘better distinguish protestors committing violence and arrest them on the spot’ while setting up roadblocks with police buses.

The move came two days after the police banned the forthcoming anti-government demonstration planned in Seoul this weekend and a day after the rally organisers, Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and Korean Peasants League, pledged to go ahead with the protest despite the ban.

The police did not allow the organisers to hold the protest near City Hall, citing violence that could possibly break out during the event. But the nation’s second-largest umbrella labour union and farmers’ group lashed out at the decision, accusing the government of denying constitutional rights and slipping back into past authoritarian rule.

Under the Constitution, the freedom of expression and rights to hold assemblies are stipulated as basic rights for citizens, with authorities required to grant the permit for a ‘lawful’ protest upon declaration. But a lower law stipulates that the police can ban any rally that could ‘clearly disrupt public order and inflict damage upon the people via violence, threat and arson’.

But the police’s heavy-handed measures, coupled with President Park Geun-hye’s pointed remark against masked protesters last week, appear to be backfiring, with citizens taking to social media to lampoon her remarks and graffiti satirising the president, who is a daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee.

Shortly after her calls for a ban on mask-wearing protestors, citizens posted comments like ‘Let’s hold a dance party wearing masks in the upcoming rally. It only costs 8,400 won per mask!’ President Park Geun-hye led the campaign against what she denounced as illegal, violent rallies by calling for a ban on masked protests and likening the masked participants to Islamic State group terrorists.

The mass protest held on November 14th was the largest in years. Over 70,000 people took to the streets against the government move to reintroduce state-issued textbooks, open agricultural markets and reform the labour sector. The demonstration spiralled into violence, with police firing tear gas and water cannons to stop protestors from marching toward the presidential office.

Baek Nam-gi, the 69-year-old farmer who was directly targeted by a water cannon while trying to pull down a barricade, was still unconscious in hospital as of Monday. The police claimed that the violence during the rally incurred 389 million won ($340,320) worth of damage to police equipment and injured 113 officers.

Since the protest, the police vowed zero tolerance of any violence committed during this Saturday’s rally, raiding the November 14th protest organisers’ offices and bringing in 401 people for questioning on charges of leading what it called ‘illegal rallies’.