Union members targeted by companies for claims

Union leaders say S.Korea’s antagonistic labor sector has resulted in mounting suits

Workers are being progressively squeezed by compensation claims and provisional attachments from employers. The situation is reversing the gains made with an agreement reached eight years ago in which labor and management said they would refrain from litigation after large indemnification suits led to a series of worker suicides.

According to the Hankyoreh’s examination Friday of five leading workplaces facing labor-management friction, the total amount of compensation claims amounted to around 75 billion won ($69.4 million), with 30.1 billion won claimed by KEC, 17.9 billion won by Kumho Tire, around 20 billion won by Hyundai Motor and its in-house subcontractors, 2 billion won by JEI, and 5.377 billion won by Hanjin Heavy Industries (including a 96 million won fine against union member Kim Jin-suk, who is currently holding a protest in a crane at the company’s factory). Around 910 union leaders and members have been targeted by the claims. Adding in the 23.2 billion won claimed from Ssangyong Motor workers for their responsibility in a strike against layoffs two years ago, with the management, insurance company, and state respectively claiming 10 billion, 11 billion, and 2.2 billion won, brings to total amount of damages claimed to nearly 100 billion won.

The workers facing massive indemnification suits are finding their very survival rights in jeopardy. At Kumho Tires, which is facing conflict over wage cuts and subcontracting, the indemnification suit was followed by 4.1 billion won in provisional attachments on 28 labor union officials.

“There are attachments on their salary deposit account and homes, so the labor union officials have really been suffering badly,” said Kim Bong-gap, head of the company’s labor union. “Some of them have been hospitalized for depression or are facing the threat of divorce.”

Korean Tutors’ and Education Laborers’ Union secretary general Yu Deuk-gyu, who was laid off from JEI, is in danger of seeing his current residence put up for auction.

“It feels like I am being cornered,” Yu said.

KEC requested 30.1 billion won in damages even after establishing a collective agreement not to collect compensation or attach property for reasons of labor union activity. The companies that have claimed damages argue that they have suffered major losses due to illegal activities by the unions and that they are following proper procedure in requesting damages and attachments.

The damages and attachments are a sensitive topic at the workplace. In 2003, Doosan Heavy Industries worker Bae Dal-ho committed suicide by self-immolation, protesting the injustice of compensation claims and attachments. In October of that year, two labor union heads took their own lives, Kim Ju-ik at Hanjin Heavy Industries and Lee Hae-nam at Sewon Tech. At the time, a social agreement had been reached among labor, management, and the government to refrain from claiming damages and seizing property, but the agreement was not observed at the workplace.

Underlying the proliferation of compensation claims and attachments by these companies is the tremendous difficulty workers face with holding legal strikes. All substantive strike effort are regarded as “illegal,” and the company routinely uses this illegality as a pretext for taking legal action. In February, Hanjin Heavy Industries undertook restructuring efforts that resulted in 400 lost jobs, including 230 voluntary resignations and 170 dismissals. The layoffs pose a direct threat to workers’ survival rights, but any strike taken in response to the issue is deemed illegal.

“They are losing their jobs overnight,” said a union official. “Who is going to take that lying down?”

“They strike or hold sit-down protests, knowing full well that it is illegal, because there is no other course of action,” the official added.

In-house subcontracting workers at Hyundai Motor carried out a strike to demand their conversion to regular employee status in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling, but this too was illegal.

The interpretation from the government and courts is that restructuring, privatization, layoffs, and the like fall under the category of management rights and that it is therefore not permitted to engage in strikes to prevent them.

Kwon Du-seop, an attorney with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) Law Center, said, “In a difficult situation where holding a legal strike is next to impossible, workplace damage claims and attachments are primarily being used to suppress striking rights, a basic labor right, and to crack down on unions.”

“The reason damage claims and attachments are so severe in South Korea is not only because of a social atmosphere that repudiates striking rights, but also because the courts too readily side with the employer in lawsuits,” Kwon added.

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