A labor dispute that must be settled by Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction has now evolved into a major political conflict. It has become a rallying point for scattered opposition parties as well as dissident groups, imposing a heavy burden on the ruling party and its pro-business lawmakers in particular.
The responsibility lies with no one else but Cho Nam-ho, chairman of the company, who has been taking shelter overseas since June, instead of getting directly involved in settling the dispute at the company’s Busan shipyard. The ruling Grand National Party and the administration are under mounting pressure to bring Cho home and stand him as a witness at a parliamentary hearing as soon as possible.
The main opposition Democratic Party has agreed with four other small leftist parties to create a council on policy consultations on Hanjin’s labor dispute and other issues of great concern to them, including the participation of government employees in party politics. Their clout is limited, with the five parties occupying 96 seats in the 299-member National Assembly.
Nonetheless, the ruling party cannot afford to ignore their demands, especially if they prove appealing to large segments of the electorate, with the next parliamentary elections scheduled for April. This prospect undoubtedly poses a vexing problem for the ruling party.
Even more nightmarish for the Grand National Party is the possibility of the planned policy consultations evolving into alliances that the Democratic Party is seeking with other opposition parties for the forthcoming elections. The possibility, though remote, cannot be ruled out.
The dispute originated in December last year when the shipbuilder decided to lay off 400 workers from the shipyard. But it was the company’s insensitivity that pushed the labor-management relations over the cliff. One day after it decided upon the massive layoffs, the company paid out more than 17 billion won in dividends. Which employee could then be convinced that they were being laid off because of worsening profitability, as they were told?
While one laid-off female worker is staging a sit-in protest which has run for more than 200 days atop a 40-meter-high crane in the shipyard, labor unions and other dissident groups are trying to get the most out of the conflict. Moreover, Hanjin finds that local sentiment is being soured by suspicions raised that the Busan shipyard may close and have its shipbuilding operations relocated to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where it operates another shipyard.
Nonetheless, Cho is staying abroad apparently to avoid being summoned to a parliamentary hearing. Hanjin offers a poor excuse, saying he is negotiating orders with foreign shipping companies and meeting suppliers. But are these alleged business activities more urgent for the top manager than settling the dispute?
Cho left the country on June 17, the day that he was summoned to testify on his company’s layoffs before the Environment and Labor Committee. In his reply to the committee, he said that he could not testify on the day because he would be on a business trip to Japan and Europe from June 17 to July 2. But he has not returned yet.
Initially, the Grand National Party did not want to get deeply involved in the case involving Cho. It made no attempt to take action against the Hanjin chairman when pressured by the opposition to press charges against him for alleged contempt against the parliamentary committee.
Now a change, though slight, is observed in the disregard the ruling party has had for the opposition’s demands. Its chief policymaker recently offered a conditional concession, saying his party would agree to summon Cho again and press charges against him should he refuse to testify again, on condition that the opposition persuade the labor activist to climb down from the top of the crane. No deal was made when the opposition insisted on his testimony only, saying that the woman would voluntarily come down if the dispute is settled.
Cho must return home immediately and testify when summoned again. Otherwise, he may face legal action from the National Assembly, with the ruling party’s tolerance toward him rapidly wearing out.