Rail workers around the world have joined solidarity demonstrations with South Korean rail workers.
The Korean Railway Workers’ Union (KRWU) has been on strike since the government unilaterally privatised Korea’s national rail network on 9 December 2013.
Workers have joined protests and demonstrations outside South Korea embassies around the world – you can see more solidarity pictures here.
A high-level ITF delegation to Korea, consisting of representatives of key rail unions and other ITF representatives has begun a mission in support of the on-going KRWU strike. The delegation is set to focus on monitoring labour rights violations by the Korean government and the employer, Korail, during the rail dispute over restructuring.
The ITF delegation, including rail union leaders from Norway, New Zealand, Thailand, Japan and the UK is concerned that the establishment of a new stock company to operate the Sueso KTX line is a first step toward the fragmentation of rail infrastructure and operations, and it has already noted that this policy echoes similar negative developments in European railway policy, specifically the Fourth Railway Package recently announced by the EU.
The current confrontation over railway policy in Korea is not merely a Korean problem. Globally, the railway sector generates inevitable capital costs, which relate to both construction and operations. Yet rail transport is a public service and must not be viewed by private capital as a profit maximisation operation. This is demonstrated by the experience of countries such as the United Kingdom that embraced rapid privatisation and espoused neo-liberal restructuring and now face serious negative consequences, including higher government subsidies, high fares, and the closing of important rail routes.
The Korean government is claiming it aims not to privatise the industry, but merely to stimulate competition in the name of efficiency. However it is clear that the measures currently proposed, which have been widely debated in Korea, herald much more fundamental changes.
In addition, the Korean government and Korail have responded excessively to the rail strike. Over the course of the last four days, union members have taken action in an entirely peaceful and orderly manner, in full compliance with the legal requirements laid down by Korean labour law. Yet the government and the company have pressed charges against hundreds of KRWU officers, thus involving the police. Over 6,000 striking workers have been stripped of their job titles. Korail has intimidated striking workers, issuing mandatory return-to-work orders and stating that all those who refuse to follow the order will be dismissed, and will be subject to claims for damages. These shocking actions constitute clear violations of workers’ basic rights and violate the international standards enshrined in the ILO’s core conventions and upheld by decent employers and governments worldwide.
The ITF delegation has therefore called for the following urgent action to respect the right to strike and enter negotiations with the KRWU, in the interests of restoring industrial harmony to Korea’s railways:
- An immediate end to repressive action and the penalisation of striking workers, as well as the withdrawal of charges against KRWU leaders,
- A halt to the use of substitute workers: Korail employees, retirees and military personnel (4,749 from Korail and 1,273 from the military and contractors are being used) – this is not only a violation of the right to strike, but represents a serious threat to rail safety,
- The Korean government and Korail to engage in dialogue with the KRWU with the aim of seeking a peaceful solution to the railway strike
- The seeking of a social consensus on rail restructuring, this means that both the government and Korail must review the unilateral decision made on December 10th to proceed with plans for a new stock company for the Suseo KTX railway.
On behalf of the ITF’s five million members worldwide, this delegation reiterates its full support for the KRWU, and once again strongly urges government and the company to initiate social dialogue. Korail management, its employees, Korea’s government, its National Assembly and civic groups should all be involved in a positive debate, aimed at reaching an agreement on the right direction for the development of the country’s national rail industry.
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