- Repression of Trade Unions and Despair from Election Outcomes Drove People to Their Deaths
- By Han Dae-gwang, Song Yun-gyeong, Lee Hyo-sang
On December 23, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions released a statement saying, "Labor repression by the Lee Myung-bak government and the despair of an uncertain future after the presidential election has driven these people to their deaths. We demand President Lee Myung-bak and president-elect Park Geun-hye to take responsibility for the situation they've created and take swift actions to resolve the situation."
They added, "The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions also feels a deep sense of responsibility. We ask there be no further deaths. [Instead] Let us fight with our lives."
On December 14 when the temporary workers branch went on strike at the Hyundai Motor Company Ulsan plant, company employees trying to deploy substitute workers and union members trying to stop them engaged in physical conflict. Yonhap News
* Suicide Note, "Another Five Years under Park Geun-hye..."
The first death occurred on December 21, two days after the presidential election. On the morning of the fatal day, Choi (34), deputy head of organization at the Hanjin Heavy Industries chapter of the Korean Metal Workers' Union, was found hanging from his neck in his office in Bongnae-dong, Busan.
He left a suicide note in his cell phone demanding the company to withdraw their 1.5 billion won claim for damages against the union on charges of obstruction of business and wrote, "Park Geun-hye becomes president and another five years, I can't..." He also wrote, "I hate this company. I give up to capital, no, to the tyranny of those with money. I don't know what to do."
On the same day, a cold wave which was expected to sweep over labor after the presidential election became a reality during a strike by temporary workers at the Hyundai Motors Ulsan plant.
On December 21, the temporary workers branch of the trade union at Hyundai Motors demanded their status be changed to full-time workers and went on strike for 8 hours each during the day and night. The members of the temporary workers branch physically clashed with the management employees of Hyundai Motors, who had deployed substitute workers.
Seventeen union members were injured in this incident and were taken to the hospital.
A member of the temporary workers branch said, "Seventeen members were transferred to a hospital after some suffered open wounds to the head, had their eyes cut, and had metal pieces pierce their wrists. Four of them who are in serious condition have been hospitalized."
He added, "We have had a few physical clashes with the management in the past, but today's incident was the most serious." An executive of the company also suffered a broken nose and more than thirty employees were injured. News of this day's incident at Hyundai soon spread throughout the workers in the Ulsan area.
After hearing the news, Lee (42), who had been laid off after working in-house as a subcontracted worker at Hyundai Heavy Industries, suffered severe psychological shock and on December 22 he took his own life by jumping from his apartment in Bangeo-dong, Ulsan. According to his colleagues, Lee was on medication after being assaulted while taking part in union activities and probably received a harsher blow from the news than the others.
In 2004, when Lee was working as the head of organization at a labor union in a subcontractor for Hyundai Heavy Industries, he protested atop a crane after a worker Park Il-su committed suicide leaving behind a note saying, "Subcontracted workers also want to live like a human being."
However, Lee was dragged down and beaten by the company's security personnel.
Oh, who was with Lee just before his death, said, "Lee was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his experience of being beaten by the security personnel of Hyundai Heavy Industries at the time of his sit-in atop a crane.
He was informing people around him through KakaoTalk of the fact that the temporary workers at Hyundai Motors had been beaten by the employees organized by management during their strike, and I think it revived memories of his own experience." The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions gathered an emergency committee and discussed solutions to the series of suicides.
In a statement released on this day, the confederation stated, "The Lee Myung-bak government has done nothing for the workers braving the bitter cold and protesting atop steel towers and bridges for over two months. The hopelessness that the coming five years will be worse than the last five years is driving these young souls to the edge of despair."
They continued, "The Lee Myung-bak government should immediately call for the suspension of labor repression and seizure of property for damage claims so the workers atop the steel tower can come down safely. President-elect Park Geun-hye should also resolve labor issues first if she is to talk about a grand union."
The confederation view the current government's oppression of labor as the fundamental cause of these deaths and are considering measures to expand the strike by the Korean Metal Workers' Union scheduled for next month to the level of the entire confederation.
Jeong Ho-hee, the confederation spokesperson said, "The two men took their lives mainly because of the despair expressed in the suicide note, 'another five years, I can't...' Since president-elect Park Geun-hye has mentioned a grand union, she should urgently respond to and resolve labor issues."
* A Civic Activist Dies, Too
Suicide spread from labor to the civil society. Choi (40), an activist with the Solidarity for Democracy, Peaceful Unification, and Sovereignty, was found dead in his room in Dobong-dong, Seoul on the morning of December 22. The police assume Choi died in his room from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by briquettes. They did not find a suicide note.
A member of the civic group said, "Choi did not leave any signs or a suicide note and I can hardly believe he took his own life. I think the election results had a big impact on this [Choi's death]."
After joining the solidarity, Choi actively took part in civic movements with particular interest in the extension of voting hours, issues on temporary workers, and the laid-off workers of Ssangyong Motor. His acquaintances conveyed that Choi had a job, and so during the presidential election period he spent most of his time after work trying to realize a new rule by ousting the Saenuri Party.
He was the student president of Kwangwoon University in 1999. The member from the solidarity said, "He never once frowned at people and was the kind of person who took good care of the people around him. Although he himself was a temporary worker, he was not pessimistic. He was actively involved in civil movements and I'm sorry to see him go."
* Nationwide Protests in Seoul, Busan, Etc.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions decided to convene a committee in response to the "martyrs' struggles" with the Korean Metal Workers' Union, the Busan and Ulsan chapter, and the Hanjin Heavy Industries branch. The committee will hold a memorial rally to protest management's labor suppression in front of the Hanjin Heavy Industries' Yeongdo shipyard daily at 7:30 p.m.
They will hold a rally to adopt their resolution in front of Hanjin Heavy Industries on December 26 7:30 p.m. and on December 27 the Yeongnam chapter of the confederation will hold a rally in front of Busan Station. The committee has also decided not to hold a funeral until Hanjin Heavy Industries withdraws the 1.5 billion won claim for damages.
Protests against labor repression will be held in Seoul as well. A Coalition for a World without Layoffs, Temporary Workers and Labor Repression, consisting of 17 work sites with on-going labor disputes, and the Network for a World without Temporary Workers plan to hold a cultural event in memory of these deaths in front of Daehanmun, Deoksugung Palace, Seoul at 7 p.m. on December 26.