South Korean metal workers face up to riot police The General Secretary of the powerful South African metal workers’ union NUMSA has called on South African companies to stop buying from a South Korean auto component manufacturer after violent attacks …

Walton Pantland
South Korean metal workers face up to riot police

South Korean metal workers face up to riot police

The General Secretary of the powerful South African metal workers’ union NUMSA has called on South African companies to stop buying from a South Korean auto component manufacturer after violent attacks hospitalise workers.

– By Irwin Jim

A dawn raid by hundreds of company thugs, dressed in full riot gear, on a South Korean Auto component company saw 34 workers hurt, with many taken to hospital with serious injuries. The company, SJM, supplies components to a number of South African car manufacturers. The workers were on a legal go-slow to try to persuade the company to bargain with them in good faith.

Numsa General Secretary, Irvin Jim, says: “No South African company should be buying from any company which behaves in such an inhuman and illegal way.

No South African motorist would want to drive a car built from the blood of workers, whatever country they may come from. We will call for a boycott of Ford, GM and Hyundai products if they continue to buy components from these ruthless criminals.”

A vicious attack

On July 27, criminal thugs, armed with helmets, shields, sharp metal sticks and metre-long clubs attacked the workers after first spraying them with fire extinguishers so they couldn’t see properly.

The workers tried to stand their ground but after several hours were forced to retreat to the 2nd floor of the building, where some of them were forced to jump from a window to avoid being beaten further.

Right now the strike breakers are occupying the company premises and the strikers are locked out and protesting outside. Last week, 1,500 KMWU members went on a solidarity strike and held a demonstration in front of SJM to protest against the attack.

The company behind the attack

The armed thugs belong to a company called Contactus, which was hired by SJM to attack the workers and break the industrial action. Irvin Jim said: “we find it interesting that Contactus has grown rapidly since the election of the current President of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak.

Can it be a coincidence that Contactus was Lee’s personal security service during his election campaign? Or that when Lee was elected, he vowed to take a hard line against unions?”

The workers’ actions

The workers at the Ansan plant, through their union, the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU), have been bargaining with SJM since April.

By June the company had refused to respond meaningfully to the workers’ demands, so on June 25 they held a strike ballot. 85% voted in favour of strike action. Despite that, KMWU did not go on immediate all out strike, preferring to be reasonable and try to persuade SJM with a series of short work stoppages.

At the time of the attack they were on a go slow, which had reduced production by about 50%. All of the workers’ actions have been legal; all of them have been provoked by management’s intransigence.

The wealth of the company

SJM is not short of cash. In the 2 years between 2009 and 2011, the company’s revenue increased by a staggering 33% (from 118 billion South Korean Won (KRW) to 177 KRW billion).

During the same period, its profit margin has increased from 20% to 28%. So SJM is a company which is making substantial profits; yet it would prefer to beat its workforce, literally, into submission rather than negotiate their legitimate demands.

Numsa’s Demands

Irvin Jim made Numsa’s position crystal clear: “We stand in solidarity with our Korean brothers and sisters. We cannot stand by while those who supply factories where our members work are brutalised for no reason other than to increase company profits.

We condemn such illegal and inhuman acts. Three companies receive components from SJM: Hyundai, GM and Ford. We are actively engaging our members at GM and Ford in South Africa so that we can find ways to eliminate SJM components from the vehicles they assemble.

At the same time, we are preparing to mobilise a mass boycott campaign of all vehicles containing SJM components. How can we fight to preserve and extend the rights of South African workers and fail to act in solidarity with workers from other countries who do not enjoy such rights?”

Numsa has written to the CEO of SJM who sent a couple of workers from South Africa to South Korea to work in the same factory called SJM.

As strike breakers, their presence in that country was simply about undermining the workers’ strike.

Workers in the plant in South Korea had been locked out even before they were on a full blown strike. Numsa takes serious exception to this conduct. We are quite aware that our own members were not given an accurate and honest briefing by SJM management in South Africa.

Numsa is calling on SJM South Africa to withdraw South African workers from South Korea with immediate effect. The company must explain to us in black and white what informs their decision to take South African workers into another country to undermine workers’ rights .

Numsa demands an urgent explanation and immediate withdrawal of those workers back to South Africa failing which as a union we shall be left with no option but to embark on strike action demanding withdrawal of those workers.

We further demand that SJM South Africa must explain to Numsa as to why they think it was correct to have taken such a controversial action that undermined workers’ rights in South Korea .

We have written to all CEOs of companies that are being supplied by SJM and those companies are General Motors South Africa, Ford Motor Company South Africa, Tenneco South Africa, Eberspacher South Africa.

To all these companies we have made it clear that we must jointly prevail on SJM South Africa to withdraw South African workers in South Korea and to explain its conduct of having sent these workers across borders to be strike breakers.

We are calling on those companies to explain to us as a union whether this is conduct that they promote from their suppliers. If they don’t, they must inform Numsa what steps they are willing to take in making sure that such conduct or action is never repeated in the history of South African industrial relations.

Unless SJM in South Africa give a satisfactory explanation and unless SJM in South Korea move with speed to resolve the current strike, Numsa will be calling on COSATU and industry to put SJM on the list of the worst employer in the world.


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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