Latest Stories

Lee Myung-bak will take office today as president

Korean Workers fear spread of neo-liberalism

Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU)
Monthly Newsletter The First Edition, 2008

[KCTU Statement] For the Lee Myung-bak government, the realization of democratic values is the key, not a ‘global Korea' of savage market competition
Feb 25th, 2008

Lee Myung-bak will take office today as president. The key themes of his government have already been outlined: advancement, practicalism, a global Korea, revitalizing the economy, change/autonomy/creativity, etc.

This simply means that he will closely adhere to the logic of neo-liberalism as the principle for managing the country. He has already stated that standard for enacting all policies would be how 'business friendly' they were, and in reorganizing the government structure has made clear that he wants a 'corporate-style' government. Regarding public enterprises and the public sector in general, his plan is not to raise the quality of services for the people of the country, but to restructure them through marketization. Comments have been made regarding introducing market logic into the social welfare system as well. The Lee Myung-bak government is thus fully prepared to implement and systemize a winner-take-all neo-liberal competition regime. We are deeply concerned that a new age of authoritarianism, based on the sacrifice of the workers, peasants, and the socially dispossessed, may be approaching.

Our society has experienced a rapid polarization of the economy from the neo-liberal policies instituted after the financial crisis of 1997. The reason that the previous Roh government was defeated by such a large margin in the last presidential elections was due in large part to the fact that he wasn't able to alleviate the polarization that had excluded the socially weak. Therefore, if Lee Myung-bak, voted in by a large margin, wishes to serve the people and revitalize the economy as he has promised, then he must urgently resolve the structural problem that is economic polarization. The task that Lee has been bestowed with by the people and history, is to redistribute in a balanced way the wealth that is concentrated in a small group and to realize economic democracy in order to protect the socially dispossessed.

However, the Lee government has pushed forward with policies that have disappointed the public, such as deregulation regarding corporate activities, relaxing the restrictions on the finance industry, and unprepared proposals regarding english education. The view of the new government regarding industrial relations has also stressed the law and principle over dialogue and compromise, while pursuing the flexibilization of the labor market, privatization of the public sector, and 'advancement' of industrial relations law and institutions. In a nutshell, this means that the new government will continue to increase the number of irregular workers in order to further flexibilize the labor market, and will oppress the workers that resist in the name of the law and principle. The Lee government's labor policy is equal to sacrificing the workers in order to create a 'business friendly' environment. Furthermore, Lee has already made clear his anti-worker stance through various disparaging and distorting comments aimed at unions and workers. This renders questionable his competence as the leader of the country, and his view on labor needs to undergo a fundamental change.

A core task that our society faces in its battle to overcome polarization is reducing the number of, and guaranteeing basic labor rights to, the irregular workers that face constant employment instability, exclusion from basic rights, and low wages. However, the Lee government has not only promised to ratify the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, but has also declared that it will seek the conclusion of multiple FTAs, exposing the Korean economy to indiscriminate competition and the public sector to private capital, thereby exacerbating polarization.

Furthermore, regarding the formulation and implementation of policies, the Lee government has tended to bulldoze them through rather than subject them to democratic processes and social debates. This leads us to the concern that his time in office could be detrimental to democracy. President Lee has repeatedly spoken about running his political party and the government as a CEO, and about the need to resort to authoritarian means to control demonstrations. Nowhere is this more clear than in his view regarding the construction of a canal that runs across the country: he has said that the majority of the public is opposed to it because they haven't seen it and that they will change their minds once it is finished. He remains adamant and plans to push through with the building of the canal. This is why many are concerned that democracy, nurtured through a difficult historical process after 1987, is in danger of moving backward under this government.

President Lee Myung-bak owes a lot to the people of this country. They have selected him as their president despite a past of numerous counts of collusion and wrongdoing, on the hopes that he would bring economic democracy. The people, in terms of their livelihood, are that desperate. That is why if the Lee Myung-bak government fails to deliver on resolving economic polarization and further improving democracy, he will face the backlash from the public, as well as from history.

Denouncing Human rights violations during the construction of a POSCO steel mill in India

- Joint Statement of Korean Social and Civic organizations and KCTU Feb. 19th, 2008

"POSCO must state its position regarding the human rights violations that are occurring in the state of Orissa"

We, the social and civic organizations of Korea, express our serious concern at the violence that is being perpetrated in the Jagatsingpur region of the state of Orissa, where a steel mill is scheduled to be built by POSCO. We have come together to demand that POSCO, as a relevant party, take responsibility and respond accordingly to the incidents.

The site of the violence is the region where POSCO is planning to build the largest steel plant in Asia. On the 22nd of June, 2005, the state government of Orissa and POSCO signed a MoU regarding mining, the building of a steel mill that can produce 12 million tons annually, and the construction of ports and other relevant facilities needed for the operation of the steel mill. POSCO's investment is the largest ever single case of foreign direct investment in India's history, as well as one without precedent in Korea. However, international environmental and human rights groups, as well as NGOs in India, have voiced concern that if the still plant were to be built, the livelihood of the more than 20,000 residents in the region, mostly still living according to traditional methods of life, would be threatened. The destruction of the environment is also a major issue.

The concerns have become reality with the serious violation of human rights in the region. According to Indian organization and Amnesty International, the violence started when the state government tried to forcefully relocate the residents in the site designated for construction and the residents resisted. In February, April, September, and November of 2007, there were repeated clashes between the state government and the residents. On the 29th of November, residents that had been on guard at the main roads and bridges into the region were attacked by 100 armed personnel. They threw home-made bombs at the tents of the demonstrators and went on to beat and sexually harass the mostly-female demonstrators. They also destroyed the residents' property and in the process left 50 injured, 15 of them in serious condition. What has shocked international human rights organizations, however, is the fact that the police, stationed just 5 kilometers from the site of the attacks, stood by without doing anything while the attacks were perpetrated. Moreover, the police took over the barricades that the demonstrators had erected as soon as they dispersed. The Orissa state police not only blocked off the village and stopped food from being supplied, but they also in effect allowed the armed men to violate the human right of the villagers and demonstrators. The village, with the police in control and the possibilities of another attack, have led to a state of de facto martial law, and the villagers are afraid that the situation may become worse.

With construction to start on the 1st of April, full-scale repression of the villages that are still resisting is expected. The appalling human rights that we have witnessed in Korea on the part of police and hired thugs during forced evacuation of shacks is being repeated in India.

We are seriously concerned that the Orissa state government and the federal government of India have not engaged in sufficient dialogue with the residents while they have endured human rights violations while demanding measures for their livelihood. Sacrifices have mounted across the country as Indians have taken a stand for their livelihood against the special economic zones that the government has vigorously pursued. We believe that ignoring the plight of the residents in favor of the needs of corporations, especially foreign ones, is a position that needs to be fundamentally reconsidered.

There is no way evade raising the responsibility that POSCO, as a concerned party to the project, has regarding the human rights violations. As a company that has stressed corporate social responsibility, it needs to accept its responsibility for the human rights violations and environmental damage that this large-scale investment has resulted in. POSCO has objected that it has no direct responsibility for the violence, but pressuring the Indian government for a rapid implementation of the project is translating into the violence against the villagers. The social and civic organizations of Korea remember the violence perpetrated by POSCO against construction workers union a few years ago in Pohang, and therefore are worried that we might see a similar ending in India. A truly respected corporation is not one that succeeds on the base of the tears of villagers and destroyed environment. It is still not too late for POSCO to come forth with its position to the relevant parties on the violence and environmental destruction, and to present a viable solution.

We urge POSCO to recognize the seriousness of the issue and initiate a dialogue with the residents before the situation deteriorates further.