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Police fire water cannons on pro-union protesters in Seoul

Left-wing civic groups again protested massive layoffs by a major construction firm in central Seoul during the weekend, before they were broken up by police using water cannons for the first time in three years.

A police-estimated crowd of some 2,500 people from various parts of the country staged overnight protests Saturday, joining the so-called “Hope Bus” campaign led by progressive groups demanding Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction reemploy hundreds of laborers laid off earlier this year.

Claiming that the Sunday demonstration outside the Hanjin building in Yongsan was unregistered and therefore illegal, police fired water cannon at the protestors for the first time since the 2008 nationwide protest against imports of U.S. beef.

Police had even threatened to load the cannons with water laced with tear gas, but did not use it as demonstrators voluntarily disbanded around 1 p.m. after reading out their statement demanding legal punishment against company owner Cho Nam-ho, reemployment of the laid off workers and President Lee Myung-bak’s intervention on the issue.

Demonstrators attempted to deliver the statement to the presidential office, but police blocked them off from approaching the building. No one was arrested during the Sunday rally.

Hanjin decided on the 400-man layoff to concentrate resources on its Subic Bay shipyard in the Philippines, sparking disputes that spread to among political parties who have even asked the presidential office to intervene to prevent further controversy.

The ongoing Hope Bus protests involve some 100 workers who refuse to accept the company offer of extra benefits in return for retirement. Some suspect the move as more political than purely labor rights-related.

Leading the demonstration, Kim Jin-sook, a former Hanjin Heavy worker and member of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, said “protests will continue until the day when the rights of non-regular workers are fully guaranteed.”

Left-leaning politicians including Chung Dong-young of the main opposition Democratic Party, Rhyu Si-min, chairman of the minority People’s Participation Party and Roh Hoe-chan of the Democratic Labor Party took part in the overnight rally to show their support for Hanjin workers.

Meanwhile, a coalition of conservative civic groups held a separate demonstration downtown Seoul, denouncing the Hope Bus as illegal and politically-motivated. Rightist groups have been criticizing the months-long protests, claiming they cause inconvenience to ordinary citizens and damage the local economy.

By Shin Hae-in (