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[Newsmaker] Unions all over S. Korea to demonstrate against ‘regressive’ labor reforms

Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions call on lawmakers to legislate labor rights protections during a press conference held in front of the National Assembly building in Yeouido, central Seoul, on Monday. (Yonhap)
Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions call on lawmakers to legislate labor rights protections during a press conference held in front of the National Assembly building in Yeouido, central Seoul, on Monday. (Yonhap)

Tens of thousands of people are expected to gather across South Korea on Saturday to protest labor reforms and to call for enhanced labor rights protections.

Han Sang-jin, the spokesperson for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, said Saturday’s demonstrations are intended to “highlight unfair labor practices that are perpetuating through the pandemic” as well as to honor the anniversary of labor rights activist Chun Tae-il’s death.

“Industrial disasters claimed the lives of 1,101 workers during the first half of the year,” he said. “With the protests, we want to draw attention to the realities and experiences of workers in vulnerable sectors.”

But as daily coronavirus cases hit a record high of 191 for the first time in 70 days, criticisms have ensued over the demonstrations being staged during the pandemic.

Organizers of two previous anti-Moon Jae-in protests were slammed as “murderers” by Cheong Wa Dae chief of staff Noh Young-min during a recent parliamentary audit session. The president himself called the protests an “anti-social crime that can’t be defended in the name of a freedom to demonstrate” ahead of Chuseok holiday in September.

The Democratic Party of Korea’s floor leader Kim Tae-nyeon said in a supreme council meeting Friday morning that if the demonstrations Saturday lead to a spread, the organizers “will have to take full responsibility and liability.”

Kim then asked public health authorities to “respond to rallies being held illegally, by the rules.” “Coronavirus control is not a matter of belief or ideology,” he said.

The party chief Lee Nak-yon also urged the unions to “respect people’s concerns and refrain from holding such large demonstrations.”

Han of the confederation criticized the comments from the ruling party leadership as “politically charged.”

“We feel especially compelled to hold this round of protests to stop the Democratic Party and this administration who are spearheading and hastening the push for regressive labor reforms,” he said.

In an Oct. 19 statement, the confederation said the labor reforms proposed under the Moon administration “proved the president’s earlier promises were a mere political rhetoric.”

The contested revisions to the labor laws include expanding the duration of collective agreement to three years and banning certain labor strikes.

The confederation warned of a general strike and an “all-out” demonstration to prevent the revisions from going through in the statement.

Han vowed the demonstrations will proceed “as safely as possible.” “Each rally will be limited in size per the numbers of people allowed by the current coronavirus guidance. All the necessary precautions will be observed,” he said.

In a briefing held later that day, senior health official Yoon Tae-ho said the Ministry of Health and Welfare has “requested the labor unions comply with coronavirus rules while they demonstrate.”

Han said around 20,000 people are expected to participate in Saturday’s demonstrations nationwide but added that the final count may differ depending on the turnout.

Respiratory disease expert Dr. Chun Eun-mi of western Seoul’s Ewha University Medical Center warned against close contact taking place not only during, but before and after the rallies.

“Even as the demonstrations take place outdoors, risks appear to be higher now than in August (with the anti-Moon protest) as the weather is colder now,” she said. “The colder temperatures can trigger respiratory symptoms that can be confusing to tell whether it is the flu, a cold or COVID-19.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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