Young women shop workers on strike in Korea, isolated by riot police
The striking shop workers at the New Core and Kim's Club shop complex in central Seoul and in the Homever supermarket in Seoul's World Cup Stadium have been cut off from the outside by large contingents of riot police. At the same time, public support for these young women supermarket cashiers and sales persons continues to grow in the Korean capital.
The Homever strike has continued for over two weeks already, and the New Core and Kim's Club workers' have been on their 'in-house picket' for more than a week.
Sleeping on the hard supermarket floor, these young Korean women workers know that much is at stake for them and their families. Would they allow their employer E.Land to go ahead with its mass dismissals, there would be numerous tragedies in this country where the social security net is unable to deal with the effects of job losses.
In the humid summer heat, conditions inside the stores begin to be very difficult. Fire exits have been blocked from the outside, closed by welded iron bars. The air conditioning is cut off and rotting vegetables and fish are contributing to an unbearable situation. The only water available is in the toilets. Until television crews exposed the occupation-like situation, also medical personnel was stopped from entering, says Jay Choi, UNI's Korea representative.
Criticism by civic organisations is building up
E.Land, the retailer which bought Carrefour's chain of hypermarkets last year and renamed the stores Homever, is falling under increasing criticism. Non-governmental groups and well-known personalities are questioning both the morality and the legality of the mass lay-offs, which the company resorted to in order to avoid giving workers permanent contracts as required by a new law.
Yesterday, twelve important civic organisations announced a nationwide boycott against E.Land. Their 'Good Consumption against Bad Company' campaign will also involve other support measures for the striking shop workers, such as collecting a mass address to require their reinstatement. A public event will be held every Saturday as long as the campaign continues.
UNI's Korea representative Jay Choi has been allowed to visit the striking workers and reports that morals continue to be high in spite of being isolated behind the police lines. They continue to receive some food from the outside, although many family members have been hindered from bringing meals to the two blocked stores.
UNI Commerce and its German affiliate ver.di have already forwarded financial support to the Korean Federation of Private Services Workers Unions KFSU, to be used for providing food to the striking workers.
Employer and police tried to refuse medical care
Thirty health-care activists have examined many of the striking workers, and found that most of them do indeed suffer from health problems related to long hours of standing upright at their cashiers' points, without sufficient breaks or possibilities to visit the toilet.
The Hankyoreh, an independent journalist-owned Seoul daily, quotes Woo Seok-gyun, an executive at the Korea Federation of Medical Groups for Health Rights:
- There are people suffering from diabetes or hypertension, both of which require daily drug administration. As the protest gets longer, many of them cannot take the necessary drugs so we feel it is necessary to give them checkups and supply them with medication.
- Police have never blocked protesters from getting medical care.”
The Police contends, however, that there is no need for medical staff to enter the facility since anyone who suffers inside is allowed to come out. A police officer said to the Hankyoreh:
- We have no choice but to prevent non-union members or others from entering since it could foster illegal demonstrations.
Presidential candidates question E.Land's morals
UNI has tried repeatedly to get the Korean government to intervene on behalf of the E.Land workers, but so far without results. The authorities are instead trying to increase the pressure on the striking workers to stop their action. A violent intervention is, however, less likely as the public opinion is strongly on the workers' side.
As South Korea is fast approaching its presidential elections, the campaign begins to take on full speed. Nine of the 11 declared candidates have already commented on the labour conflict at E.Land, questioning the ethics of the company's action.
The Hankyoreh also reveals that E.Land management has forced non-regular employees to sign up under other people's names after having worked for a year in the company's stores. Thus they forfeit the chance to get a regular contract after two years of employment, as provided by the new labour law.
Before Carrefour sold its Korean subsidiary to E.Land, it signed a collective agreement for its personnel. As part of this agreement, three thousand non-regular workers - which means part-timers and others - were protected against dismissal. This collective agreement, which is legally binding also for the new owners E.Land, has been openly violated through the mass dismissals.
Brutal and greedy management hides behind 'religious' facade
E.Land and its main owner Songs Park pride themselves of their Christian approach to business. The Christians@Work website describes this approach:
- At the outset of E.Land, all its employees were Christians. But as the business grew, it needed to hire nonbelievers. At first, Park thought that he had to hire them out of necessity, but later changed his mind and thought that his business could be the place for evangelism. As part of this mission, E-land offers an annual retreat to all the employees where there is a chance to hear the gospel.
- Park often says that when he started his business, he did "business for mission," now he is doing "business as mission." The business activities have become to him the mission of God itself. All employees are taught to think of their work in this way.
Reportedly, Mr Park has defended his refusal to recognise trade unions on the grounds that unions are not mentioned in the Bible.
No wonder that also Christian groups in Korea are seriously questioning the company's brutal behaviour.
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