Critics denounce news conference as stunt to evade grilling at parliament
Reeling from a long strike and protest over layoffs causing social and political upheaval here, chairman of Hanjin Heavy Industry & Construction Cho Nam-ho vowed Wednesday to take full responsibility for the aftermath of the strife.
In his first public appearance after about two months overseas however, he refused to withdraw his massive dismissal scheme and showed no willingness to talk to labor unions, drawing fire from politicians and labor experts that his remarks were no more than a stunt to appease lawmakers ahead of the Aug. 17 National Assembly hearing on the company.
“I express regrets to Busan citizens and the public that our strife created confusion and trouble,” Cho told a press conference at Busan City Hall. “I intend to take full responsibility for the incident. I will also do whatever it takes to bring the company management back on track,” he said.
Cho Nam-ho, chairman of Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction, makes a statement on the strikes and labor protests against its large-scale layoffs in Busan City Hall, Wednesday. (Yonhap News)
Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions hold placards urging Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction to rescind its massive layoffs in front of Busan City Hall, Wednesday. (Yonhap News)
Cho promised to support college tuition fees until graduation for children of 304 voluntary retirees out of the 400 workers who left the company under the restructuring program, and also give them 22 months of salary in addition to their severance pay. He also vowed to rehire the workers first if the business swings back into the black in three years.
But he explained that his layoff program was “inevitable” to tackle the declining sales and soaring deficit. He did not hint at the possibility of withdrawing layoffs or reinstating the fired workers in the near future.
His appearance came about two months after he left for Japan in June. He held the news conference just days before his scheduled questioning at the National Assembly. Despite many requests from politicians including former National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o and the ruling Grand National Party floor leader Hwang Woo-yea, he stayed overseas, remaining silent about the summons.
Cho denied allegations that he intentionally made overseas business trips to evade the questioning. “I traveled back and forth about the globe to sell ships,” he said.
Whether his news conference would settle the chilly relations between the management and labor, or the management and politicians or labor groups remains to be seen. The HHIC management and union on June 27 agreed to end its months-long strike but their agreement has broken down on the reinstatement of the fired workers, prompting them and their sympathizers to carry on with their resistance.
Kim Jin-suk, a committee member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, has staged a sit-in protest on a 35-meter-high crane for more than 200 days. Hundreds of people have visited the site from across the country to encourage Kim and the dismissed striking workers three times, drawing attention to their issue.
Cho expressed discomfort. “It is regrettable that outside people are trying to meddle with the case in forceful and illegal ways,” he said.
Labor activists sympathetic to the strikers on Wednesday morning reproached Cho. “Cho deceived the parliament. He also deceived his workers. The government and the ruling party should hold him responsible,” the group stated.
“I have a feeling that Cho’s actions are to soothe public antipathy toward him so that he could avoid grilling from the lawmakers. Cho is an immoral businessman trying to evade his responsibility as a business leader by fleeing to other countries when problems occurred. This is time for the society to show his justice,” Sim Sang-jeong, a former lawmaker who is holding a fast to protest against the layoff program, said on her Twitter account.
Kim Hyong-o, who has his constituency in Busan, called for Cho’s resignation. “He has created a great stir in the country. He needs to express his sincere apology by offering to step down from his position,” he said. “Cho’s announcement today will be neither an excuse nor remission for parliamentary hearing,” he said.
By Bae Ji-sook (firstname.lastname@example.org