December 2018 protest of taxi drivers (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)
In November 2018, over 150,000 South Korean workers walked out of factories to remind the country’s president, Moon Jae-in, of his pledges to improve working conditions. Two months later, two Korean taxi drivers set themselves on fire in protest of plans by a large national mobile messaging company to introduce an Uber-like ride-sharing app. Then this February, labour groups joined in solidarity with Buddhist monks to march against South Korea’s lack of basic labour protections for irregular workers.
These demonstrations are not isolated events in the South Korean landscape. The nation boasts a vibrant and often militant protest culture that continues to discover new ways to take to the streets. In recent years, South Korea has seen everything from a year-long sit-in on top of a smokestack to a “ghost rally” that displayed life-sized hologram protesters instead of actual people.
The recent mass demonstrations have largely been a response to President Moon’s faltering support for labour and his lack of chaebol reform. The two concerns go hand in hand.
South Korea’s large family-owned conglomerates—Samsung, Hyundai, LG and other household names known collectively as chaebol—embody the classic “too big to fail problem.” Although these companies are involved in numerous corruption scandals and have been resistant to progressive, pro-worker reform, the export-driven economy’s dependence on the chaebol have made governments hesitant to place restrictions on them.
For decades, labour has paid the cost of the state’s inability—and lack of desire—to dismantle the chaebol system. In the second half of the 20th century, workers were made to endure insufferable working conditions in order to foster chaebol growth.
At an institutional level, little has changed in the present day. Recent administrations have continued to let the chaebol influence labour legislation and frequently let labour violations slide. In a tale that is all too familiar around the world, labour policy in South Korea has therefore continued to serve the interests of big business.
President Moon was supposed to break the status quo and transform South Korea. Not necessarily because of his own election promises, but rather because Moon entered office in 2017, on the heels of a massive revolution that left South Koreans feeling inspired and energized.
Beginning in October 2016, protestors filled the streets of Seoul and other major cities in South Korea to rally against the corrupt rule of then president Park Geun-hye. The protests were sparked by allegations that President Park was offering multi-million-dollar favours to South Korea’s largest chaebol, Samsung.
Unlike the more violent South Korean social movements of the 20th century—in which protestors used stones, firebombs and steel pipes—this movement employed different tactics.
Demonstrators came out every Saturday night of the fall and winter of 2016, carrying candles, singing, dancing and wearing costumes to create a visceral image of joyousness and collectivity. The protests thus earned the name the Candlelight Revolution. At its height, over 2.3 million participants flooded the streets carrying candles, showing the world what democracy looks like.
Ultimately the protestors succeeded. In 2017, Park Geun-hye was impeached from office. This was a victory for labour unions such the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and its affiliates, who had been protesting Park's right-wing neoliberal labour policies since her election.
The revolution depended on coalition-based mobilization to weave together labour, hundreds of civil society organizations, and individuals across the political spectrum, to face the age-old problems of chaebol corruption and the repression of workers. Admittedly, South Korean civil society has not been as cohesive since, but the Candlelight Revolution set a precedent for what collectivization could be.
Elected in the aftermath of this monumental movement, President Moon distinguished himself as an alternative to the previous government. The Moon administration’s five-year plan prioritized limiting irregular employment, raising the minimum wage and reducing the maximum work week. These changes were long overdue in South Korea, where in 2017 the average worker was clocking nearly 14% more hours than the average OECD worker.
Moon upheld his promises, at least initially. In 2018, his government hiked the minimum wage and slashed maximum weekly working hours from 68 to 52. Both law-makers and big business quickly blamed South Korea’s sluggish economy on Moon’s new labour-friendly legislation.
While it’s true that the Korean economy is decelerating, the slowdown can be better explained by a range of structural challenges currently facing the country. Near the top of the list is increasing trade friction with China, which put in place a number of restrictions on Korean imports in retaliation for the latter’s installation of a U.S.-made missile defence system.
Nonetheless, Moon appears to have caved in to the demands of his critics. In November, his administration announced that it was considering expanding its flexible work-hour system. Labour unions see the government’s move to introduce greater flexibility to the workplace as the president backpedaling on his commitment to reducing working hours and limiting precarious work.
A flexible work-time system would “allow companies to make their employees work 80-hour weeks without overtime penalty rates,” says Hyewon Chong, a representative of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU) in a recent Facebook post. Chong adds that both the KMWU and KCTU are calling for the complete “dismantlement of the chaebol-controlled economic regime in order to pave the way to true economic democratization.”
While the unions continue to take to the streets, looming trade consultations with the EU are adding additional fuel to the fire. In July 2011, South Korea entered a free trade agreement with the EU that required both parties to agree to a comprehensive list of labour commitments. Now the EU asserts that South Korea has not held up its end of the bargain, especially when it comes to labour rights.
In January 2019, the EU began consultations with the government of South Korea to push the nation into ratifying core conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO). South Korea has yet to ratify ILO clauses concerning the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the abolition of forced labor. The EU has also expressed concerns around South Korea’s treatment of irregular workers. (Canada, it’s worth noting, does not seem to share the European concerns, even though its own free trade agreement with Korea, in force since 2015, also requires both sides to recognize these ILO rights.)
As he faces heat from labour, big business and the EU alike, President Moon will have to confront the issue of labour protection and its companion, chaebol reform, in the upcoming months. And while a wishy-washy president attempts a balancing act, one thing seems certain: whether they bring stones or come carrying candlelight, South Koreans will march on.
Zaee Desphande is a master's student in the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University and currently an intern at the CCPA's national office.