Labour union stages rallies, strikes in South Korea

SEOUL – Tens of thousands of labour union members took to the streets across South Korea on Wednesday (Oct 20) to demand better working conditions for irregular workers and a minimum wage hike.

This was despite repeated government warnings that the rally was illegal and violated Covid-19 restrictions.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) said some 80,000 members joined rallies across 13 cities, which caused severe traffic congestion and disruption.

A one-day strike involving 550,000 members also took place across the country, it added.

Many schools were affected as canteen workers hung up their aprons. About 1,000 delivery workers also turned off their phone apps to join the strike.

Irregular workers do not receive the full benefits under South Korea’s labour laws. They include temporary workers and contract workers.

In Seoul, 27,000 people took to the streets. The police deployed about 12,000 officers to set up “bus walls” and fences to prevent people from gathering at Gwanghwamun Plaza, where most rallies take place.

Nearby subway exits were also blocked off. This forced the union members, many clad in pink and white, to march towards Seodaemun Station instead. They were seen waving flags and chanting for better labour rights.

Local reports said some of them clashed with police officers who were trying to block them from moving.

The police and the Seoul city government have both issued repeated warnings that such a large-scale gathering goes against the Infectious Disease Prevention Act.

All rallies are banned under the Level 4 social distancing measures in Seoul and greater Seoul.

President Moon Jae-in also urged the KCTU to refrain from rallying, saying that it could make it harder for health authorities to slow the spread of Covid-19.

The country reported 1,571 new cases on Wednesday, the 12th consecutive day that numbers have remained below 2,000. This brings the total tally to 346,088.

However, the union decided to push ahead with the aim of highlighting labour issues ahead of the presidential election next March. It also promised to comply with antivirus guidelines and complete the strike and rally peacefully.

An estimated 2,500 union members gathered in front of Gwangju city hall, while 2,800 rallied in front of Changwon city hall. Another 1,000 people gathered in the city centre of Chuncheon city.

The police said they will pursue legal action against the organisers.

The KCTU has about 1.1 million members and is one of two major labour unions in the country.

It said last week that it had constantly urged the government to address issues faced by irregular workers who suffered the most due to the Covid-19 pandemic, “but the government tried to muzzle us without giving an answer”.

As at August last year, irregular workers accounted for 36.1 per cent of the total number of salaried workers.

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