Half a million South Korean workers walked off the job on 20 October, demanding the abolition of irregular work, the nationalisation of key industries and greater decision-making power for workers in times of crisis.
The general strike, called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), drew in workers from a range of industries, with 80,000 taking to the streets in 13 different cities, according to the Korea Times. In Seoul, 27,000 protesters took over the Seodaemun Station intersection, disrupting traffic with a sea of union flags and raised fists. Some wore costumes inspired by the Netflix hit Squid Game, which has drawn global attention to the miserable living conditions faced by many South Koreans.
Behind this strike lie three decades of neoliberal policies, savage austerity and bitter class struggle. According to OECD figures, South Korea ranks third in annual working hours globally. Amid the pandemic, Statistics Korea recorded an 8.6 percent increase in the number of irregular workers on low-paid casual or part time contracts, now making up almost 40 percent of the workforce. Privatisation is rife. How did it come to this?
South Korea’s neoliberal transformation began in the 1990s. Facing economic downturn, the capitalist class looked to the same neoliberal policies that were being used in other countries in an effort to restore profitability. But it wasn’t only financial woes provoking these restructures. In 1987, an incredible wave of labour unrest swept the country, known as “the Great Workers’ Struggle”, in which an outburst of rank-and-file-led strikes achieved wage rises and the right to form unions. When recession hit, the capitalist class could no longer afford to grant such concessions.
The “New Managerial Strategy”, launched in the mid-1990s and inspired by management techniques used in Japan and the US, introduced human resources departments into workplaces alongside an expansion of automation and the subcontracted hiring of more casual and part time workers. While unions had some space to organise workers, new laws limited their militancy and bosses sought to coopt their leadership. In the next decade, union membership declined, particularly in small workplaces, and strike rates fell sharply.
After the Asian financial crisis hit in 1996, the capitalist class launched another offensive. In a secret meeting, with no opposition leaders present, the ruling party introduced a series of new repressive labour laws which made it easier to sack workers and increased the legal work week by 12 hours. This incited widespread anger amongst workers. The recently formed KCTU, at this point not legally recognised, called a general strike. By that afternoon, 145,000 workers had walked off the job. The strike continued in a stop-and-go fashion for three months, drawing in 3 million workers. The government was forced to withdraw the proposal. Yet its determination to legislate change meant the rewritten policy contained few concessions.
Despite this loss, the flame of resistance could not be completely extinguished. The early 2000s were characterised by small scale, isolated strikes predominantly over the issue of irregular work, but their atomisation remained a barrier to success.
In 2009 class struggle intensified, this time in a militant union stronghold: the Ssangyong Motors car factory. After the company announced mass lay-offs, thousands of workers launched into action and occupied the factory. Over 77 days, it transformed into a site of fierce class warfare. Workers fought back against brutal police repression, building barricades and launching nuts and bolts from large slingshots. One of the strikers, speaking to libcom.org, recounted the determined bravery of the workers in the face of such brutality:
“Intermittently, when the riot police try to get into the paint plant, they use a special gun firing 50,000 volts and nails, while the scabs are using slingshots from the building opposite. Naturally, we are fighting the police with iron pipes and Molotov cocktails on the street in front of the factory to defend the strike. Those of us in here will show our determination to die to the world not only as workers but also as human beings.”
While this strike ended in defeat, it set the stage for the decade to come. The lay-offs had come in the political context of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s war on organised labour, which intensified following the 2008 global financial crisis. The election in 2013 of Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, marked another escalation of the class war agenda. But workers continued to fight back.
After the government brought in a private train service to compete with the state-run Korail, thousands of workers participated in a three-week strike—the longest railway strike in South Korean history. In 2014 alone, labour disputes increased by 76 percent from the previous year. New labour laws facilitating performance-based dismissals sparked a series of mass protests, more than 65,000 workers from the health care, finance, and transport sectors walking off their jobs in mid-October, the largest public sector strike in South Korean history.
With a political agenda transparently reminiscent of her father’s, Park cracked down on free speech and democratic rights while also attempting to rewrite the history of his dictatorship, and used national security laws from 1948 to jail opposition lawmakers and dissolve the largest social democratic opposition party in the country. Political activists Park Rae-gun and Kim Hye-jin were arrested after organising anti-government protests on the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry sinking, a result of shipping deregulation and rescue privatisation, which claimed the lives of 300 high-schoolers. President of the KCTU Han Sang-gyn was sentenced to five years’ jail over his role in the 2015 protests.
Park’s downfall came over the revelation that her close friend of 40 years, Choi Soon-sil, had access to confidential government documents and was acting as a government adviser. After years of attacks on ordinary South Koreans, this blatant corruption was enough to spark protests of hundreds of thousands calling for her resignation, with chants of, “The owner of this country is the Korean people!” As the South Korean daily Hankyoreh put it, “Watching these demonstrations felt like witnessing a reoccurrence of the democratisation movement that swept the entire country in 1987 and brought down the dictatorship ...[The] rage that had been simmering quietly has boiled over all at once”.
The South Korean Democratic Party, led by Moon Jae-in, jumped on the opportunity presented by snap elections. Taking government in May 2017, Moon promised a crackdown on government corruption and the restoration of workers’ rights. As attested to by this month’s general strike, his promises have fallen short. The Democratic Party is just as committed to running South Korean capitalism as the conservative Grand National Party. Moon has simply brought a return to stability and more attacks on workers.
South Korean workers have suffered immense losses in their living standards after three decades of neoliberal policy. The number of workers in irregular work, according to OECD figures, has skyrocketed from 16 percent in 2001 to almost 40 percent today. Those in irregular work, such as construction, driving, cleaning or convenience store clerking, have very little certainty about their futures. Women make up a disproportionate number, driving up the gender pay gap.
South Korean workers have similar average incomes to workers in the UK and Australia, but work about 360 more hours per year, the equivalent of nine standard working weeks. In 2018, maximum weekly working hours were cut from 68 to 52, and while this was a welcome change for some, for many irregular workers it meant working more hours in the informal sector to make up for lost overtime.
South Korea has also experienced a huge jump in household debt, G20 data showing that the national household debt-to-GDP ratio has reached over 100 percent, up from around 75 percent in 2010. A recent Full Story podcast touched on the issue, telling the not uncommon story of a man who quit his job due to the long work hours, started a small business to make an income and is now so loaded with debt that he has had to get a job as a delivery driver to pay it off. His wife has moved to another city for work while he lives in a hostel, where the rooms are “slightly bigger than coffins”, rarely going outside due to the shame he feels over his situation. It is no wonder that South Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries.
As recent history attests, South Korean workers have not just accepted this state of affairs. They have continued to resist and accumulated crucial experiences in the process. It is clear that a change in government will not bring the improved living standards that South Koreans desperately want and deserve. This can come only from a united and militant workers’ movement from below. A general strike of half a million workers with far reaching demands is an important step in that direction.