Thousands of workers yesterday celebrated May Day, the international day of solidarity for working people, with mostly traditional rallies and marches across the country. But this year, the camaraderie among the nation`s two most powerful, yet rival, trade unions was unusually high.
The Federation of Korean Trade Unions, the largest umbrella labor group in Korea with 940,000 members, marked the international labor day with a marathon run. About 2,000 workers participated in the event, which started at 10 a.m. in Yeouido, central Seoul.
In the afternoon, about 25,000 workers affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, second largest with 620,000 members but the most militant labor group, held a rally in Gwanghwamun area, central Seoul.
The two groups` presidents took part at each other`s gathering, giving a solidarity speech for the first time and speaking with one voice against the government-driven irregular workers bills.
Forming a united front against the bills, FKTU`s Lee Yong-deuk and KCTU`s Lee Soo-ho have been fasting together in a makeshift tent in front of the parliament buildings, central Seoul, since April 22. Yesterday was the 10th day of their first-ever joint hunger strike.
Intense negotiations are under way between representatives of labor, management and lawmakers.
"Through this solidarity formed between the FKTU and KCTU, we will win this fight and enact labor bills that will root out the discriminatory practices against irregular workers and safeguard their labor rights," FKTU`s Lee said at the union`s May Day event in Yeouido.
The three parties have agreed to conclude the negotiations quickly so the bills can be enacted in the current Assembly session but, even after 10 rounds of negotiations, they have so far failed to hammer out an agreement.
The bills, if passed as drafted, would allow firms to hire irregular workers more freely, thus bolstering labor market flexibility.
Labor demands that companies should hire temporary staff only where circumstances warrant, for instance during maternity leave of permanent employees, to prevent excessive reliance on the low-paid irregulars.
The national human rights panel also recommended a fair wage guarantee be stipulated in the bill to protect irregulars from exploitation. It also wants only specific industries to use temporary workers.
However, business argues that if labor`s demand finds its way into the bill, it would discourage companies from hiring temporary workers and thus drive up unemployment.
The main ruling and opposition party lawmakers made it clear that they would go ahead with the labor reform bills as drafted at the plenary session slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, even if labor and management fail to reach a compromise.
By Lee Sun-young