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Part-timers on hunger strike for 10,000 won minimum wage

By KH디지털2

Published : June 22, 2016 - 17:43

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[THE INVESTOR] On Tuesday afternoon, some 15 part-timers were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the pavement behind a poster reading “Fight for 10,000 won minimum wage” at the entrance of the National Assembly in western Seoul.

Among the 20-something workers chattering and giggling are members of the nation’s Part-Time Workers’ Union who have been on a hunger strike since June 16 to demand next year’s minimum wage be raised to 10,000 won ($8.67). This year’s minimum wage per hour stands at 6,030 won, up 8.1 percent from last year. 

“It’s bearable to refuse meals. For part-timers, starving is just an ordinary routine,” Park Jung-hoon, president of Part-Time Workers’ Union, told The Korea Herald. “Ironically, I am not eating to protect my rights to eat.”

Union members of Part-Time Workers’ Union confront police officers on their way to a meeting with opposition lawmakers of The Minjoo Party, in front of the party’s office in Yeouido, western Seoul, on June 9. They delivered their petition to demand the minimum wage of 10,000 won that day. Union members of Part-Time Workers’ Union confront police officers on their way to a meeting with opposition lawmakers of The Minjoo Party, in front of the party’s office in Yeouido, western Seoul, on June 9. They delivered their petition to demand the minimum wage of 10,000 won that day.

“We are not here to demand a lot of money. We are here to demand the government guarantee workers the very least standard of living as a human being,” the man said slowly and quietly, wearing a hat to avoid the blazing sun.

Park and four other union members chose to fast in protest against what they see as the flawed system that sets the minimum wage in favor of employers and lawmakers’ inaction to fulfil their election pledges to increase the wage.

The hunger strike comes amid a fierce clash over the extent of the minimum wage hike between laborers and employers. Talks on the next year’s rate have been held through the Minimum Wage Council in April.

Labor unions argue that the hike would curb the nation’s income inequality, improve living conditions for low-income workers and revitalize the faltering domestic economy by boosting consumer spending.

Business leaders, on the other hand, campaign for a freeze, citing job losses for low-skilled workers and soaring production costs, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. They also call for a differentiated minimum wage by industrial sectors and regions. 

Camping outside the parliament building, Park pointed out that the minimum wage of 10,000 is not achievable under the current system of settling the rate as it is heavily influenced by the government.

“In order to reflect laborers’ demands in the process and increase the wage, it takes a political will. It should be decided at the National Assembly that represents people, not through the Minimum Wage Council,” Park said.
The nation’s minimum wage has been decided through the Minimum Wage Council since 1988. The council consists of 27 delegates – nine each from labor, management and public sector. As employers and employees wrangle over the minimum wage every year, the decision is usually left in the hands of the nine government-appointed delegates from the public sector.

“I feel very weak. It is bearable to refuse meals. It is just the heat that I cannot stand,” said Lee Ga-hyeon, a 24-year-old student, sitting under a black umbrella to keep the sun out. Lee said she worked part-time at a clothing store for six hours daily after school. 

“I earned only 600,000 won. There was no money left after I spent it on food and public transport.”

Since she graduated from high school, she has done seven other part-time jobs including waiting tables and selling merchandise.

“With the way it is right now, I will never be able to improve my life. We are forced to hold several jobs because the hourly minimum wage is too low. We then are not able to focus on our studies.”

Lee said that she felt the irony when selling jewelry that she would never be able afford, adding that she also felt helpless devastation.

“At first I was just thankful that I could have a job and didn’t know what to do when I received less than the minimum wage. ... I realized that I would never be able to live a better life unless the system changes.”

The hunger strikers have been taken to the police station every day for questioning on charges of holding an illegal assembly.

Opposition lawmakers have shown interest in their protest, including Rep. Park Ju-min of The Minjoo Party, Lee Jeong-mi of the Justice Party as well as Goo Gyo-hyeon, the head of Labor Party, who paid them a visit in a show of support, the organization said.

Other part-timers also joined the protest from a distance by refusing to eat for eight hours to amass a collective 10,000 hours of fasting. As of Wednesday, more than 10 people were involved in fasting some 4000 hours collectively.

Despite the heavy rainfall expected in the coming days in the monsoon period, the protestors looked determined to continue the hunger strike. “We will hold a hunger strike despite the rain until the minimum wage is settled,” the union head Park said.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)