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Choi Byeong-seung from the Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers' Union begins his protest, spending 296 days on an electricity pylon.

Korean union secures thousands of jobs for contract autoworkers

06.09.2017

With just a month to go before 7 October, when IndustriALL Global Union takes a stand against precarious work, we take a look at the epic battle fought by IndustriALL affiliate, the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU) at Hyundai Motor Company.

A combination of strikes, protests and court battles in a campaign lasting more than ten years paid off for KMWU, which together with its affiliate the Hyundai Irregular Workers’ Union, has succeeded in securing permanent jobs for 6,000 contract workers at Hyundai Motor Company in Korea.

The quest to convert irregular workers into permanent employees at Hyundai began in 2004, when the Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers’ Union and KMWU appealed to the Korean ministry of labour to stop the illegal dispatch of workers at the company.

The move came in response to a joint survey of contract workers at Hyundai Motor carried out by KMWU, which revealed that around 9,300 of the 10,000 contract workers at Hyundai Motor plants in Korea (out of a total of 60,000 workers) were being illegally employed as subcontractors.

Under the country’s Act of Protection for Dispatched Workers, it is forbidden for contract workers to be dispatched to assembly lines in the manufacturing industry. Contract workers must also be hired if they work for more than two years in the same position.

Yet, thousands of subcontracted workers were being employed on the Hyundai production line working alongside regular workers. They used the same tools as regular workers and worked under direction of Hyundai management, but for 50 per cent less pay, no welfare benefits and no job security. Many had been doing the same job for more than two years. This form of disguised employment is common in the South Korean manufacturing industry.

Despite the ministry of labour issuing an administrative order recognizing the illegal subcontracting of Hyundai workers at its plants in Ulsan, Asan and Jeonju, the company failed to regularize the workers, preferring to pay minimal fines instead. The illegal dispatching continued when the authorities decided not to prosecute Hyundai Motor in 2005, even after the ministry submitted its opinion that the company should be indicted.

When more than 200 subcontractor workers took strike action to demand permanent contracts at the beginning of 2005, 100 of them were fired while one of the dismissed workers, Ryu Ki hyuk was so desperate he took his own life.

In a long period of slow progress, the Hyundai Irregular Workers’ Union continued its protest actions alongside KMWU, which pursued the illegal employment of contract workers through the courts. 

A major breakthrough came in July 2010, when the Supreme Court of Korea ruled in favour of Choi Byeong-seung, a member of the Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers' Union, who had been sacked after three years working for an in-house subcontractor.

The Supreme Court ruled that Choi was unquestionably an illegal dispatch worker and must be regarded as directly employed by Hyundai the day after he worked more than two consecutive years at the plant. This ruling of the Supreme Court also meant confirming all the subcontract workers at Hyundai Motor were illegally dispatched.

The Supreme Court’s decision, although ignored by Hyundai, enabled the Hyundai Motor Irregular Workers' Union, to build an organizing campaign increasing its membership to nearly 2,000.

Hyundai responded by terminating its contract with subcontracting companies, meaning that the irregular workers immediately lost their jobs. Hyundai went one step further and insisted that workers would only be rehired by the new subcontracting company if they withdrew their membership from KMWU.

This triggered strike action and contract workers occupied the Ulsan plant for 25 days from 25 November 2010, demanding permanent jobs. The company claimed the strike cost the company 21.3 billion won (at the time equal to USD277 million).

In August 2012, Hyundai Motor submitted a proposal to convert 3,000 contract workers into permanent jobs. But this was not enough for KMWU and Choi began a mammoth protest occupying an electricity pylon for 296 days, demanding that Hyundai convert all contract workers into regular employees. His protest, which received worldwide media coverage, inspired the contract workers to reject the company’s offer and they began a wave of strikes. Through these actions, they strengthened their organization and their negotiation power against the company, while also gaining public sympathy.

In August 2014, ten years since the initial dispute began, Hyundai agreed to convert 4,000 contract workers into permanent posts, which was implemented by the end of 2015.  In March 2016, a second agreement was reached, confirming the employment of an additional 2,000 workers by the end of 2017.

IndustriALL’s general secretary, Valter Sanches, says:

“KMWU’s struggle to regularize workers at Hyundai Motor is an example that affiliates can use to fight back against multinational companies that disguise precarious work through outsourcing and contracting out. KMWU's heroic campaign shone the spotlight on Hyundai’s behaviour, which in turn received universal condemnation from politicians, civil society and the wider labour movement. It was this public pressure, combined with KMWU’s actions, that finally caused the company to comply with Korean law and make 6,000 contract workers permanent.”

Hyundai Motor now has 4,000 temporary workers in Korea, most of whom are employed through short-term contract workers permitted under current labour laws.  Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has promised to wipe out irregular work in the country, but it will be a tough journey despite his own willingness.