•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

After mass firing

Korean workers come to the source

Published Nov 2, 2008 8:45 PM

Hyewon Chong
WW photo:
Deirdre Griswold

When 300 women workers who manufactured SIRIUS satellite radios in Seoul, South Korea, were all fired for forming a union, they vowed to fight for their jobs.

That was on Aug. 5, 2005—more than three years ago—and they are still fighting.

In mid-October, a delegation of six people from the Korean Metalworkers Union visited New York to seek justice from SIRIUS. For days, they and allies from Korean community and labor groups picketed the firm’s corporate headquarters in a gleaming glass and steel building near Rockefeller Center, trying in vain to get the company to sit down with them. They wanted to know who was responsible for the decision by SIRIUS’s Korean affiliate, Kiryung, to fire the workers.

“On June 7, 2008, Kiryung had come to a tentative agreement to reinstate us as contingent workers,” Hyewon Chong, one of those fired, told Workers World. “We would become regular workers one year later, so the union agreed. But then the company said its board of directors refused. So the workers started a hunger strike. Two of the women fasted for 94 days and were hospitalized.

“During the bargaining, Kiryung Co. said it had been told by SIRIUS to close all production lines in South Korea and move to China.

“They told us lies. They said there were no production lines left in Korea, so we can’t reinstate you. But we investigated and found five other production sites. Because the company keeps lying and makes no effort to settle, we’ve come here.”

The women found out that at exactly the same time they left South Korea, the company sent goons to the site of the workers’ sit-in outside the factory gates to beat people up.

More than 64 percent of all workers in South Korea are considered “precarious”—that is, they have no contract, no seniority and no rights. The Federation of Korean Industries argues that it has to be able to fire workers at will in order to be “flexible.”

A major reason the Kiryung workers decided to form a union was the company’s arbitrary firing policy. “There was an endless stream of dismissals for the pettiest reasons,” explained Chong. “The boss just had to say he didn’t like your face, or you were too fat, or you had asked to go home early. We were dying of overwork but were afraid to take a day off if we were sick, so people took over-the-counter drugs to keep working. When one colleague collapsed, the boss said, ‘Go home and rest and don’t bother to come back.’ The fear of firing gave the company lots of control over people.”

SIRIUS makes satellite radio receivers and has contracts with some of the world’s biggest auto companies to install them in its cars and trucks. It also provides commercial-free programming for a fee and recently merged with its main rival, XM, to create the second-largest subscription media business in the U.S.

“The repression against us is so extreme because this struggle is symbolic for millions,” says Chong. Indeed, companies like SIRIUS think they can dictate horrendous wages and working conditions all over the globe, threatening to move from country to country if workers organize and resist.

The Kiryung workers traveled halfway around the world to reach out for support. Workers here and their unions will be advancing their own struggle against rapacious corporations by responding.