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New hope for end to Hanjin dispute

Management and labor union to meet Monday to discuss proposal

Attention is being drawn to whether management of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Co. and its union can iron out an agreement ending their yearlong labor dispute after its chief on Friday accepted a parliamentary mediation proposal.

The Korean Metal Workers’ Union under the umbrella group of the hard-line Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is expected to meet Monday with management to discuss the proposal, union officials said.

The meeting follows a decision over the weekend by Hanjin chairman Cho Nam-ho to accept the proposal, which the ruling and opposition party lawmakers of the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee drew up to resolve the issue.

During a three-hour closed-door session which Cho attended, the lawmakers worked out the proposal.

“We have unanimously made the proposal to address one of the biggest problems facing our society. We hope that management and the union coordinate to swiftly address it,” Rep. Rhee Beum-kwan of the ruling Grand National Party said.

The dispute has escalated into a hot-button issue with civic and political groups upbraiding the company and calling for immediate measures to help the laid-off and ameliorate working conditions. It was triggered after the company decided to let hundreds of production-line workers go last December, citing management problems.

The Assembly’s proposal calls for reinstating 94 laid-off workers within a year and offering them up to 20 million won ($16,949) each to help support them until they return to work.

The precondition for that is that Kim Jin-sook, a senior union member who has staged a sit-in protest on a 35-meter-high crane at the company’s Yeongdo shipyard in Busan since Jan. 6, should stop protesting.

The KMWU largely responded positively to Cho’s acceptance of the proposal. But it expressed regrets that workers’ opinions were not sufficiently reflected during the process of crafting the proposal. 
Police fire water cannons at demonstrators occupying a main road in downtown Busan on Saturday in protest of layoffs at Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Co. (Yonhap News)
Police fire water cannons at demonstrators occupying a main road in downtown Busan on Saturday in protest of layoffs at Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Co. (Yonhap News)

“It is clear that the management has moved a step forward and that an opportunity for negotiations between the two sides has been forged through the proposal. But the KMWU has yet to accept the proposal,” said a KMWU official, declining to be named.

“The opinions of the parties directly involved in it have yet to be solicited for the proposal and we also have to verify whether the proposal can be conscientiously carried out by the company. We also consider that this has expanded into an issue involving all irregular, contract-based workers.”

Kim, still staging a sit-in on the crane, said that she will determine whether to stop her protest based on her union’s decision after talks with management. She responded positively to the proposal, saying that it was an improvement on the company’s previous stance.

“I cannot decide by myself on whether to come down from the crane. I am not doing this protest alone, but with my union members. So, I will follow their decision,” she said in a telephone interview with the local daily Hankyoreh.

Kim also expressed some misgivings about whether the shipbuilder will carry out its proposal.

“Hajin has always reversed itself. But this time, it is a promise that it has made with the citizens at the legislature. Can it really reverse it this time, then? I believe that it will keep the promise,” she said.

Meanwhile, the “Bus of Hope,” a group of ardent supporters of the Hanjin protestors, staged its fifth gathering on Saturday in Busan, chanting slogans calling for the immediate reinstatement of the laid-off and measures to help irregular workers.

Thousands of people from across the nation participated in a street march in the southern port city where the shipbuilder is based. Police dispatched some 6,500 officers to prepare for clashes.

No serious clashes or injuries were reported. But police said scores of people were taken to the police stations for investigation as they have done “illegal things” which they have not specified.

By Song Sang-ho (