Workers Struggles: Asia, Australia and the Pacific


South Korean unions begin strike action

Members of the Confederation of Korean Trade Unions (KCTU), one of Korea's two main union groups, launched a general strike on Wednesday. The KCTU is demanding the introduction of a five-day working week and a 15.2 percent wage rise. Of the 29 OECD countries, South Korea has the longest working week—an average of 47.9 hours a week, and 50 hours a week in the manufacturing sector.

KCTU President Dan Byung-ho also indicated that the strike was to support the long-running dispute over the restructuring and sale of Daewoo Motors. The unions are not seeking to defend jobs and conditions but are diverting the struggle into a nationalist appeal for the company not to be sold to a foreign corporation.

The campaign began with a rally of 20,000 in Seoul and on the first day 70,000 workers from 141 unions went on strike. These workers, however, represent only a fraction of the KCTU's 590,000 members. While many metalworkers and nurses participated in the strike, no workers from the country's four auto producers employing over 1.5 million were involved. Neither were subway workers involved or those employed in state-run industries, including telecommunication workers. The first ever pilots' strike was also averted when the government agreed on Tuesday to allow them to form their own union after a long running dispute.

On the second day of the strike the number participating more than halved. In some cases the KCTU struck deals with employers who agreed to some of the demands in order to end the dispute. Staff at several hospitals returned to work after the union struck an agreement for an 11.7 percent pay rise.

Just prior to the strike, President Kim Dae-jung told a cabinet meeting that he was willing to consider the introduction of a five-day working week. He said that a tri-partite commission set up the previous week comprising union and business leaders and the government should be the forum where negotiations take place.

Sri Lankan workers defy emergency laws and unions

Over 265 workers from the Coombe Wood Estate at Talawakelle in the central plantation area went on strike on May 23 over the management's failure to pay salary deductions to the Electricity Board. As a result, electricity supply to the workers' quarters had been disrupted on a number of occasions. The estate unions—the Ceylon Workers Congress and the Up Country Workers Front—failed to challenged management on the issue.

As a result young workers formed a committee and began to negotiate directly with the Electricity Board. The committee collected Rs.1500 ($US20) from each family, paid the money to the board and obtained its approval for the electricity to be supplied to the workers' quarters. But the management and union leaders intervened to block the deal.

The strike forced management to back down on the electricity issue but with the support of the unions it has suspended 20 workers in an obvious attempt to intimidate the workforce. The workers have decided to stop paying their monthly union dues.

The strike was held in open defiance of the government's ban on all strikes and protests as part of emergency regulations imposed in May following a series of military defeats in the country's long-running civil war.

Sri Lankan doctors union issues ultimatum to government

The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has issued an ultimatum to the Peoples Alliance government warning that it would take industrial action from June 12 if they failed to address a list of demands. The GMOA is calling for all qualified doctors to be immediately issued with official letters formally appointing them to their appropriate salary scale. The union is also demanding a resolution to a dispute over the victimisation of union activists and the lifting of the government's emergency laws.

Strike by Indonesian port workers

Jakarta's International Container Terminal (JICT) in the Tanjung Priok Seaport was brought to a standstill on Monday when 850 workers went on strike. The workers staged a rally at the House of Representatives to protest the privatisation of the terminal and the company's plans to slash 20 percent of the workforce by next March.

The workers say that a deal between the government and a Hong Kong-based company, Grosbeak, to privatise the port is “full of irregularities”. The strikers are calling on the government to review the deal, to investigate those involved in the purchase of company shares and to replace the present JITC director. Workers have threatened to strike again next Monday if their demands are not met.

Grosbeak purchased 51 percent of shares from JICT's parent company, PT Pelabuhan Indonesia II, last year for $US215 million as part of a government move to privatise state companies. The price was well below the estimated value of $US350 million.

Indonesian golf caddies strike

About 220 caddies from the Bogor Raya Golf Club (KGBR), in an exclusive area of Bogor Lake Side, held a daylong strike last Sunday over wages and conditions.

The caddies are demanding improved welfare benefits and facilities for employees as well as compensation for those who work on holidays but are not assigned to the golf course. They are also demanding that management eliminate part-time and full-time status for caddies and that they provide a clear explanation of club rules and fees.

The workers say that their status as full- or part-time employees is subject to change without notice and that pay for part-time caddies has been reduced by Rp 5,000 ($US0.67) with no explanation from management. Only 30 caddies at the club are classified as full-time and receive the regional minimal wage, whilst the rest are forced to rely on tips and caddy fees.

Hong Kong teachers plan boycott

A meeting attended by 1,500 teachers in Hong Kong decided to boycott exams in October and hold a mass rally on June 10 of 75,000 union members. The rally was held in protest against changes to teachers' conditions, including the requirement that thousands of teachers must pass a language test by 2005. A petition supporting the boycott has been circulated and signed by 36,000 teachers. The pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers rejected the boycott, saying it would set a bad example for students studying for their tests.

Indonesian maid caged by wealthy Malaysian employer

A 57-year old maid from East Java testified in a Kuala Lumpur court on Monday that she had been kept in a cage by her employers for the last 30 months and had not being paid for the last seven years. An engineer and his wife kept her in a grilled cubicle in their backyard with only an ice cream container as a toilet.

The maid said she was allowed out once a day for an hour to mop the floors and had never been allowed holidays during the seven years. Asked why she did not run away, she answered, “Where am I going to find food, where to sleep? I am illiterate.” Several Malaysian employers are currently facing court charges over their ill-treatment of maids.

Australia and the Pacific

Australian truck drivers blockade highways

Long distance truck drivers, members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), carried out blockades on key interstate roads throughout Victoria last week to demand better conditions and to oppose rising oil prices. The owner-drivers have set up roadblocks on the main Melbourne-Sydney highways at Wodonga and in Gippsland, Yarragon and Orbost. The Federal Transport minister sent an open letter to the truck drivers on Thursday to try to convince them to lift the blockades.

The drivers are demanding minimum cartage rates, 14-day payment deadlines, the licensing of loading agents and that the Federal Government pass laws to enforce these changes. Doug McMillian, president of Natroad, which represents around 300 owner-drivers, said that the drivers were exploited and underpaid. “Some drivers are barely earning $1 a kilometer, when anything less than $1.40 a kilometer is considered to be the point when they are not making money”.

Owner-drivers make up about 80 percent of the trucking industry in Australia. With the cost of prime movers at around $200,000, many are forced to enter into considerable debt and some end up mortgaging their homes to buy their trucks.

A recent coroner's report into a 1996 crash revealed that drivers often battled to meet schedules and frequently used stay-awake drugs. It stated that drivers who failed to maintain schedules risked losing future work and thus their livelihoods. Driving while severely fatigued was common and the minimum regulations governing driving hours were often ignored, the report concluded.

School teachers in Melbourne protest over increasing class sizes

Teachers at Scoresby Secondary College in Melbourne's eastern suburb stopped work for the fourth time in recent weeks to protest against growing class sizes. As a result of the destruction of 4,000 positions teachers are forced to take classes of up to 30 students. Australian Education Union President, Mary Bluett, said not one teaching job had been replaced over the last seven years. Hampton Park Secondary College, another eastern suburb school, is expected to take similar industrial actions over the same issue.

Strike by West Australian freight handlers

Airfreight workers began strike action last Friday over a pay dispute linked to a proposed amalgamation of a number of TNT companies with Ansett Australia airlines. Ansett workers returned to work on Saturday but went out again after talks between the Transport Workers Union and the companies failed to resolve the dispute.

The dispute affected interstate deliveries of both air and road freight. When the strike escalated on Saturday it included workers employed by TNT Express, McPhee Transport, TNT Domestic, International Express and Ansett Air Freight. Ansett freight workers are paid $1.75 an hour more than their TNT colleagues for doing the same work and they fear that wages may be cut as a result of the proposed amalgamation.

New Caledonian cement workers strike

A bitter two-month strike by cement workers in New Caledonia ended earlier this week with their union signing a deal that will allow redundancies to go ahead. The strike by workers at the Numbo cement works, owned and operated by the Swiss multinational Holderbank, was called over company plans to reduce the workforce from 38 to 20.

In the course of the dispute, police harassment of the strikers resulted in a police car ramming a worker's vehicle at a Noumea intersection. This led to a demonstration of almost 2,000 through Noumea in support of the striking workers. Local press reports said that before the strike was called off on Tuesday the authorities had been planning a police operation against the pickets and their barricades at the cement works.

A spokesman for the USTKE union, Gerard Jodard, said the result was a "major victory" over the multinational company, claiming that it had been forced to retain one of the two departments it had intended to close down. However the agreement that the union signed allows the company to proceed to close the second department. The number of jobs to be lost has not been disclosed.