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Korean unionists alert world to deaths at Hyundai shipyards

18 November, 2015Trade unionists from Korea travelled 9,000 kilometres to Geneva, Switzerland to attend the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights this week. They want to tell the world about the workers dying in the yards of the planet’s biggest shipbuilder, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). 

Sixteen workers died as a result of gruesome and preventable accidents during the period March 2014 until September 2015, which is almost one death a month. Yet HHI refuses to take responsibility for their deaths because they were all working for subcontracting firms.

Chang-min Ha, Chairperson of the HHI Subcontractor Workers Local union, which is affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union through KMWU, said:

“We have come to Geneva and the UN forum because HHI violates the human rights of workers who face risk of death on a daily basis. Workers are too scared to speak about their concerns about safety because they fear getting fired.”

HHI makes container ships and tankers as well as ocean platforms for the oil and gas industry. Around 50,000 people work in HHI’s yards, with 80 per cent or 40,000 people employed by subcontracting firms.

The recent increase in deaths is linked to the rising number of subcontractors used by HHI in the past two years.

“There is no safety management among subcontractor workers, they have to do more things in less time and with less training and education. They rarely get any health and safety training at all,” said Ha.

Only an estimated 3.5 per cent of accidents are reported to authorities.

“From 2012, we have been watching hospitals for a week at a time to see how many injured workers arrive from HHI yards. We have counted from 40 to 80 injured workers a week, and this is by attending just one hospital at a time, when there are around 10 clinics in the area,” said Ha.

“Sometimes workers are brought to the hospital by HHI in trucks or cars instead of ambulances. They tell hospital staff that the victim had an accident at home. Workers themselves are even reluctant to tell authorities how they got injured in case they lose their jobs.”

In September 2012, a worker reportedly died because he arrived at hospital in a truck instead of an ambulance and did not get first aid in time.

Chang-min Ha said his union has had to sue subcontractor companies for not reporting accidents. Some companies have been punished by authorities for this but not seriously.

“Concealment of accidents leads to the deaths of workers,” said Ha.

The union is trying to improve safety at HHI but to no avail so far:

“We never get a response from HHI. We sent management a questionnaire about health and safety but they simply threw it out.”

Union hostility at HHI is rampant. As soon as HHI finds out that a subcontractor is a union member, he or she is fired, said Ha. This is completely against Korean and international law. In Korea workers have the right to organize.

Workers for subcontractors, who earn 70 per cent less than permanent employees, risk being laid off at any time. Subcontractors have been known to proclaim bankruptcy and disappear without paying wages.

Workers at KTK Sunbak, a subcontracting company used by HHI, have been demonstrating on the streets for more than 200 days fighting for their unpaid wages after the company closed down in March 2015. This is in contradiction of the company’s contract with HHI, which stipulates that a certain amount of sales must be kept aside to guarantee the money for workers’ wages. HHI refuses to take responsibility even though it caused the closure of KTK Sunbak.

Kan Matsuzaki, IndustriALL’s shipbuilding director, said:

The ratio of one fatal accident per month at the HHI shipyards is insane and clearly shows the company has no respect for the rights and lives of its subcontract workers. HHI must recognize the HHI Subcontractor Workers Local union which can make the workplace safer and sustainable through consultation and negotiation with management.