Hundreds of South Korean riot police on Tuesday clashed with laid-off workers who have occupied part of Ssangyong Motor Co’s only assembly plant for more than two months, leaving at least 23 people wounded, according to police officials.
Scores of police commandos started moving into the painting facility, a four-storey building with a total space of 50,959 square metres, where about 550 workers have been since May 22, to protest against the company’s job cuts.
The mass lay-offs were part of a restructuring plan ordered by the court in February, when Ssangyong entered bankruptcy protection.
Police commandos seized the roof of another building connected with the paint shop, while about 300 riot police armed with batons and plastic shields were approaching within five metres of the occupied building, police officials and witnesses said.
The workers fought back by shooting nuts and bolts from large slingshots, hurling Molotov cocktails and rolling out burning tyres.
Clouds of black smoke were seen at several spots inside the plant.
The wounded people, including police officers and company employees, were hospitalised.
It wasn’t immediately known how many workers were hurt.
A police official said: ‘Today, we will enter as far as we can into the paint shop. So it can be said that operations have essentially begun.’
The raid raised fears of a deadly clash because the paint shop is filled with flammable materials.
Earlier in the day, family members of the workers had asked the National Human Rights Commission to stop the raid, warning it could lead to bloodshed.
Tensions at the plant heightened as last-ditch talks to resolve the stand-off collapsed on Sunday after Ssangyong and the unionists failed to make a breakthrough over how many workers would get their jobs back.
The company has cut off water and electricity to the paint shop, which is packed with flammable materials.
Since the talks collapsed, 114 workers have voluntarily left the site, according to police.
Ssangyong, which has been under bankruptcy protection since February, has until September 15 to submit its final turnaround programme to its creditors and a bankruptcy judge.
The stand-off has darkened the prospects for the carmaker’s survival, costing nearly 316 billion won ($259.4 million) in lost production.
A group of Ssangyong suppliers have said they would ask the bankruptcy judge to liquidate the troubled carmaker on Wednesday.
In the first six months of this year, Ssangyong’s sales plunged 73.9 per cent from the same period last year to 13,020 units.
Ssangyong is still 51 per cent owned by China’s Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp, but the parent company lost management control after Ssangyong entered bankruptcy protection.
Since the rupture of negotiations between Ssangyong Motors labour and management, the sense of tension inside the paint shop that has served as the site of the strike was clearly on the rise.
The impending police raid was expected and some of the workers were preparing to leave the site, however, an estimated 600 workers pledged stay regardless of the consequences.
The company had ordered its 4,500 employees to be on standby to work on Tuesday.
The company announced that since early Sunday morning, the 42nd day of the strike and the day talks fell apart, a total of 92 unionists have left the site.
The company also turned off electricity to the paint shop on Sunday, after having already suspended food delivery on July 17, and water and gas supplies on July 20.
The paint shop, with its food, water, gas and now electricity suspended was standing in front of a certain storm.
Those who left the company and those that remain, their families, creditors and police, were looking at the place with unease.
Han Sang-gyun, the Ssangyong Motors Korean Metal Workers Union branch head met with unionists at several locations throughout the plant on Monday.
He said the real intention of the company was to kill the union.
At 11:00am orange bags filled with tear gas agents once again began falling from helicopters onto the paint shop from above.
Someone called out, ‘Are we to be treated as weeds that require pesticide?’
Ever since the electricity was shut off, the unionists have used butane gas to cook rice to eat rice balls.
The air conditioning has been shut off too, so the inside of the paint shop is sweltering with a few lit candles placed here and there.
The entire site is full of flammable materials like paint thinner and the safety of the workers is in doubt.
Clashes with the company recommenced. Unionists fired projectiles using slingshots as company security officers attempted to remove a metal barricade set up by the unionists near the paint shop.
The families of these surviving workers are overcome with concern.
A member of the group, ‘Wives Who Love Ssangyong Motors,’ expressed her frustration.
She said: ‘It seems the union’s determination and the company’s announcement of a breakdown in talks have led us to this, and the order from the company for employees to prepare to enter the factory has made us uneasy.
‘Meanwhile, this asshole administration is just standing by as so many people are struggling. . .’
It seems as though management is saying surrender or starve to death to union members they are regarding as their enemy.