Seven months atop a crane
With almost seven months atop a crane, a 51-year old woman trade unionist is staging a solo protest to end layoffs at a shipyard in South Korea.
Kim Jin-Suk, 51, climbed the 35-meter tall crane in the Yeongdo shipyard of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction (HHIC) in Busan, the hub of South Korea’s shipbuilding industry on January 6 this year and has been there ever since to protest against what she says are “mass layoffs” at the country’s former biggest shipbuilder.
Her sit-in protest is helping to revive trade unionism in a country that was once a byword for violent clashes between workers and police, but which under conservative President Lee Myung-bak has seen the unions adopt a back seat.
The labor activist is a member of the direction committee for the office of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and she was laid off by the shipbuilder in Busan, a city on the southeast end of the Korean peninsula, about 420 km (262 miles) from the capital Seoul.
Kim Jin-suk entered the yard in 1981 as a welder and was laid off in 1986 by the company for distributing pamphlets denouncing a company-sponsored union at a time when South Korea was still a military dictatorship.
The Busan shipyard is no stranger to labor activism. On crane No. 85, Hanjin’s labour union leader, Kim Joo-ik, hanged himself on Oct. 17, 2003 after a 130-day protest on the same crane. He wanted sacked employees to be reinstated as well.
The current action has its roots in 2010 when Hanjin said it would lay off 400 employees as the yard had not won any ship orders for several years. In response, workers striked and Hanjin closed the yard.
228 workers applied for voluntary retirement and 172 workers were laid off. The company laid off 800 workers and 1,200 contract workers early in 2010.
Despite a June 27, 2011 agreement negotiated between the HHIC management and a union leader to go back to work, Kim and other striking workers said they could not accept the terms as they were not involved with the negotiations.
Kim is now a rallying point for labor and the country’s opposition. About 10,000 people from across the country gathered at Busan station on July 30 to attend a rally supporting Kim. Most people came to Busan by bus, so-called “Hope Buses”, a phrase used by the protesters to represent a world without layoffs and temporary workers.
The labor activist, wearing a worker’s uniform, has no shower and uses a bucket as a toilet. She uses a smartphone to communicate and has over 20,000 followers on Twitter. A publishing firm issued in 2007 her collection of essays, “Salt Flower Tree”, the title reflecting the sweating bodies of workers after a day’s work in the yards.
Kim has said she will come down only when the shipbuilder withdraws its plan for lay-offs.
Hanjin itself says Kim and her “Hope Bus” supporters are politicizing the issue and say the worker who was retrenched more than a decade ago has nothing to do with the company and its workers who are “working very hard now to get the company back to normal”.
Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction’s Chairman Cho Nam-ho left South Korea on June 17 before he was supposed to appear at a parliamentary hearing. The leader of the company has not yet returned. Cho is the CEO of Hanjin Heavy, and the largest shareholder of Hanjin Heavy’s parent firm Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Holdings. Cho holds 46.5 percent of the holdings firm.
Having witnessed the 51-year old woman atop her crane on Sunday, it occurred to me that people might see her staying there through the next winter, if she and Hanjin cannot meet for talks to resolve the issue.