Behind the Olympics Facade: Labor Resurgence in South Korea

By Stephens, Bernard | The Nation, September 19, 1988 | Go to article overview

Behind the Olympics Facade: Labor Resurgence in South Korea


Stephens, Bernard, The Nation


All is not peaceful in the Land of the Morning Calm as it awaits the Seoul Olympics. While attention has been focused on student demonstrations and moves to lessen tensions with the North, a threat has arisen to the dominance of South Korea's business conglomerates and their political allies in the Roh Tae Woo administration. Organized Labor, beaten into company-union impotence by nearly thirty years of military dictatorship, has emerged with the first few whiffs of democracy as a potent force in the nation.

The resurgent Labor movement has proved that it can take on the powerful conglomerates (known as chaebol) and bring production to a halt despite the bribery of union officials, tear-gassing, the arrest and beating of workers and even the bizarre kidnapping of a union organizer by the biggest of the industrial giants, Hyundai. In less than a year 300,000 workers have joined unions and formed more than 1,000 new local unions, while conducting successful strikes that have brought wage increases of 15 to 20 percent. Union membership is now more than 1.3 million and growing fast.

The Labor turmoil directly challenges Roh's constant calls for "stability"moderation" so that Korea's economic boom can continue unabated. In the current Korean lexicon, "stability" means that dissidents demanding greater democracy should be quiescent, and "moderation" that Labor should accept the gracious offers of the chaebol and refrain from sitting in, slowing down and walking out. The power of the chaebol is all- encompassing. Together, such giants as Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo, Goldstar and Ssangyong control production in electronics, appliances, autos, shipbuilding, mining, fisheries, food, hotels, finance, insurance, military hardware, soda pop, candy bars and even the professional baseball teams -which represent corporations rather than cities. They are the heart of an industrial empire described by William Overholt, a Bankers Trust economist in Hong Kong, as "the most efficient economic machine the world has ever seen." It is also one of the most lucrative, racking up volume and profit gains at unprecedented rates (30.2 percent more profits last year than in 1986, and on course for another record year in 1988).

But the reams of statistics proclaiming the nation's economic growth have concealed the realities of pay and working conditions for Korean Labor. Prosperity is confined to a handful of millionaire industrialists and a middle class that feeds off chaebolleavings, while workers have endured the longest hours and some of the lowest wages of any industrial work force in the world. The basic work week is six days, forty-eight hours. Overtime brings average hours in manufacturing to 54.7, compared with the United States, 40.7; West Germany, 41; Japan, 41.5; Hong Kong, 44.8; and Singapore, 48.6. Wage levels are equally oppressive. In heavy manufacturing, pay averages $450 a month, including bonuses and family allowances; this is a mean hourly pay of $1.90 and explains why a Hyundai auto can sell for under $6,000 in the United States.

Women work even longer hours than men (an average 55.2 compared to 54.5) and for far less pay. Workers on the electronics assembly lines, mainly women in their teens, earn $250 a month-a fifth of what their counterparts make in Japan. Garment industry sweatshops are notorious, paying the minimum wage of $150 a month for unskilled work and $158 for semiskilled. A fire at the Greenhill Textile Company in Anyang in March briefly focused attention on the conditions under which many women work. Twenty of twentyeight young women died and three others were seriously injured while sleeping in makeshift dorms in the factory. The fire started in bolts of cloth piled on the stairway. There was no fire exit as required by law. The employer had been cited twice, once for illegal operation in a residential neighborhood and again for unauthorized use of a factory as a dormitory; but payoffs to avoid compliance are common. …

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