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Second-largest labor union to stage strike, rally

South Korea’s second-largest umbrella labor union is set to go on a general strike nationwide Friday, calling for a minimum wage raise and better conditions for irregular workers.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which encompasses some 734,000 workers across industries and regions, will hold rallies nationwide, with the main event in Seoul scheduled to start at 3 p.m. at Gwanghwamun Square. About 40,000 unionists are expected to join, the KCTU said. 


Some workers were already on walkout, as the group has declared a week from June 28 to July 8 as an “all-out strike” week. Thousands of schools nationwide have been affected, with kitchen operations stopped. The participants include irregular workers in the public sector -- such as cleaners and school staff -- and subcontracted workers in the private sector, demanding the government act to root out discrimination against irregular workers in terms of pay and working conditions.

“It is a strike where irregular workers stand at the forefront. Now is the time to push for grand labor reforms,” Choi Jong-jin, acting head of the KCTU, said at a press briefing Wednesday.

A report by the Korea Labor Institute showed that most irregular workers are excluded from social safety nets and receive only half the wages of regular workers. Nonregular workers accounted for 32 percent of the entire workforce in Korea, as of the end of March 2016.

On Thursday, some 380,000 irregular workers at schools -- caregivers, teaching assistants and kitchen staff -- across the nation walked out.

With school kitchens’ operations stopped, students brought lunch boxes and their meals were replaced with bread and milk. Some schools cut short their classes for the day.

According to the Education Ministry, 27.3 percent of the elementary, middle and high schools here -- 3,150 out of 11,518 schools -- jointed the strike. Nearly 17 percent of all the schools shut down their kitchens.

But there is also criticism that the labor union’s strike is ill-timed and premature, given the liberal Moon Jae-in administration is working to deliver on promises of raising the minimum wage to 10,000 won and eradicating irregular jobs, which are the labor union’s main demands.

“The KCTU’s strike puts pressure on the Moon administration which has not a full structure. It can adversely affect labor-management relations, minimum wage and irregular workers,” Woo Won-shik, the ruling party’s floor leader, said Thursday.

Employers also blasted the move.

“The increase in minimum wage and problems surrounding irregular workers should be discussed together with the management, taking into account the negative impact they could have on the business environment and jobs,” said the Korea Employers’ Federation in a statement.

Talks to set next year’s minimum wage for workers are underway. Workers demand the minimum wage be raised to 10,000 won to curb the nation’s income inequality, which employers view as a move that could further putting a strain on the faltering economy. Currently, the minimum wage stands at 6,470 won per hour.

The government signaled its willingness to closely communicate with the labor circle.

“The demands of the labor bloc will not be achieved all at once, but the government and the labor circle should find common ground based on mutual trust and willingness even though it takes time,” Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said during a policy meeting Thursday.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (