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Suddenly, Koreans Work Without a Net

Workers protest changes that allow American-style layoffs

The scenes have been vintage South Korea: Banner-waving protesters, wearing slogans on their headbands and determination on their faces, butt up against phalanxes of seasoned riot police. Before long, tear gas is in the air.

This is a country famous for student demonstrations and work stoppages, but the labor standoff that has gripped South Korea for three weeks is a break from the routine.

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For the most part it has been a kinder, gentler strike, one intended to generate popular empathy, not disrupt public services. At its heart is a fight over principle, not disputes over wages and work hours.

The conflict is part of South Korea's rapid emergence as a full-fledged industrialized nation. The government and corporate leaders want a more flexible job market so that South Korea can better compete internationally. Workers want to expand their rights to organize. And they are demanding that the government do more to protect those who lose out in the global economy.

The standoff is also something of a clash of civilizations. President Kim Young Sam's economic advisers are influenced by American-style free-market principles, says Choi Jang Jip, a professor who studies labor and political issues at Korea University in Seoul.

But Korean workers, he adds, have grown "unconsciously accustomed" to the Japanese-style system practiced here, in which companies keep workers on staff in lean times at the expense of efficiency. "There's a culture gap," Professor Choi says.

On Dec. 26, National Assembly members belonging to the ruling New Korea Party convened in secret and took seven minutes to pass significant revisions to the country's labor and national-security laws. Since then, hundreds of thousands of workers in a variety of industries have participated in full or partial strikes, causing losses of $2.4 billion, according to a government estimate.

The party says it was forced into the action by opposition filibustering. But the clandestine meetings outraged labor leaders and seemed to many South Koreans to be less than democratic. "It ended up looking ... very dictatorial," says a foreign analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Today, the standoff has had much to do with politics. That was underscored Jan. 14, when Kwon Young-kil, a onetime newspaper correspondent who is the leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), promised that labor actions would continue until next December's presidential elections if the legislative revisions were not nullified. The KCTU is technically illegal, although the government has tolerated its existence for years.

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Mr. Kwon, talking to reporters on the grounds of Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral, where he and other leaders have sought sanctuary as they direct the strike, called the early morning legislative action a continuation of the repressive tactics of the country's previous military dictators.

President Kim, meanwhile, has been standing firm. He insists that the legal changes are overdue and a necessary adjustment to an economy that has recently begun to slow down after decades in which it routinely expanded by 8 percent or 9 percent a year.

Indeed, the revisions to the labor law were a long time in coming, as just about everyone has grown dissatisfied with the existing legal framework, which was first established in 1953.

Corporations want more freedom to lay off their employees and hire replacement workers during strikes. Union leaders want to broaden their rights to organize, since the original law contains restrictions that the International Labor Organization and other groups have criticized. "Korean workers are limited to joining unions or union federations that are approved by the authorities," says the New York-based group Human Rights Watch/Asia in a November 1995 report.

Three weeks of strikes suggests that the labor unions feel deeply shortchanged by the revised law. Business leaders do not seem upset with the substance of the revisions, although the way the bills were passed upset Koreans of all stripes.

Labor leaders agree that the Korean companies must operate in an economy where they can maintain competitiveness. But Korean workers, they argue, do not yet have the social protections - such as a welfare system - that workers enjoy in industrialized states.

One reason the activists feel entitled to such institutions is that South Korea last year joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that includes only the world's leading economies.

The only South Korean social safety net, says Yoon Youngmo, international secretary of the KCTU, has been the family. Before the government goes about allowing companies to lay off workers - nearly impossible under existing laws - it must set up more comprehensive protections for those affected, Mr. Yoon adds.

The reason this strike has been relatively gentle is that the unions need broad public support in order to make Kim change his mind.

"It's not in the interest of the KCTU to have [the strike] blow up," says the foreign analyst. "This controlled demonstration of their power has been very effective so far."

Choi, the professor, says that white-collar employees and self-employed workers are generally supportive of the strike, in part because of its nature. He says the KCTU's Kwon is responsible for the strategy, noting that the former journalist is more of an intellectual than previous labor leaders. Kwon also has ties to the Korean politician establishment, having gone to the same high school as the president.

Kwon called for a fuller, more disruptive strike on Jan. 15, though most Koreans may not feel much of a jolt.

"Our strike is not aimed at destruction," KCTU secretary Yoon says. "It's aimed at showing how strong our resolve is."

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