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Frustrated by their temporary status, auto workers at a Hyundai Motor Company plant in Ulsan, South Korea, declared a strike on Nov. 15, and one desperate worker set himself on fire in protest of the company’s refusal to offer secure jobs. About 500 workers have since led an occupation of various plants in the Hyundai compound.
Police use pepper spray against Korean autoworkers.
Plagued by unfair dismissals and miserably low wages, precarious workers, known in the United States as temporary or contract workers, are shutting down assembly lines to voice their discontent. The occupation of auto plants has resulted in company losses totaling $173 million as of Dec. 1. Mainly affected is production of the recently unveiled Hyundai Accent. Countless pre-orders on this new sub-compact vehicle have now been left unfilled.
The cost of Hyundai’s refusal to negotiate with striking workers increases exponentially every day. The estimated $225 million that a concession in this particular case would cost is not much more than the toll the work stoppage has taken so far, but the automaker is doubtlessly interested in longer term outcomes.
Hyundai is the fastest-growing company in the auto industry, and that means it’s quickly becoming a force to reckon with for companies like Toyota which is notorious for keeping temporary workers on low wages for years and dismissing them with ease.
To anyone interested in workplace fairness, the resolution of the Ulsan Hyundai workers’ strike is critical. It could either speed up progress toward ensuring global living wages, or provide a green light on the race to the bottom the auto industry began years ago – — with Toyota and Hyundai getting a head start.
Korean autoworkers rally for their rights.
More than 20 percent of Hyundai workers are hired on a temporary basis. Hyundai often poses as a subcontractor, hiring workers on a temporary basis and shutting down plants when workers demand fair wages. A July 22 ruling of the Supreme Court of Korea banned the company from this practice.
Hyundai has failed to alter its hiring system, and precarious workers troubled by the company’s blatant disregard for the court’s decision have decided to take the matter into their own hands, initiating a large-scale strike soon to enter its fourth week. Hyundai is dealing severely with these workers, having already filed lawsuits against 27 labor leaders involved in organizing the strike.
“Precarious workers should be treated in the same manner and have the full rights of regular Hyundai workers. The UAW and our sister unions around the globe will be standing with these workers until Hyundai stops the violence and repression of these workers and recognizes them regular Hyundai workers,” said UAW President Bob King.
King will be traveling to Korea this month to show solidarity with the workers’ struggle.
“Hyundai is a very successful, profitable company, and it is a moral outrage that instead of including workers in the success of the company, they are keeping more than 8,000 workers at poverty level wages and in complete uncertainty for themselves and their families. We join the Korean Metal Workers Union in demanding that Hyundai immediately hire these workers as full-time Hyundai employees and ask that all people of conscience join us in this demand,” King added.
Precarious workers at Hyundai have been active since the July ruling when precarious workers began to organize en masse for ethical treatment through the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU).
On Dec. 1 the KMWU asked its members, including regular Hyundai workers, to join the strike of precarious workers, putting increased pressure on the company to reform its practices.
In solidarity with KMWU members on strike in South Korea, the UAW has organized a peaceful demonstration at the Hyundai America Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Dec. 6. The action will begin at 4 p.m. and will feature a speech on the importance of global solidarity by King, as well as a vigil to show support for the striking workers. UAW and community members wishing to demand fairness at the workplace for Hyundai workers in Korea are encouraged to attend.