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Korean Unions Must Embrace Marginalized Workers, Says Key Figure in Movement
On Wednesday, Sim Sangjeung (left) poses with Namhee Lee, a UCLA specialist in modern Korean history.

Korean Unions Must Embrace Marginalized Workers, Says Key Figure in Movement

Sim Sangjeung, a prominent labor organizer who spent years on the run as South Korea made its democratic transition, addressed an audience of about 55 in UCLA's Moore Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 23, saying that her country's labor movement would have to change dramatically to avoid becoming irrelevant.

Sim Sangjeung spent years in hiding while South Korea was under dictatorship, wanted for her role in organizing the Kuro labor strike of 1985. She later became a legislator and a 2007 progressive presidential candidate, always with the goal of strengthening workers' rights in a country where unions have an uphill struggle. Today, about 10 percent of the South Korean labor force is organized, and the movement is threatened by the changing conditions of a globalized world, she explained to about 55 people in UCLA's Moore Hall on Feb. 23.

Jane Kim (right), a doctoral candidate in history in the UCLA Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, interpreted for Sim during the question period.

Jane Kim (right), a doctoral candidate in history in the UCLA Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, interpreted for Sim during the question period.

"There's a strange phenomenon now in Korea," said Sim. "Although all the political parties are shouting for welfare and welfare reforms, the government at the same time is encouraging more irregularization of workers."

Indeed, and especially since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, part-time employment has become the norm in South Korea, Sim said. Counting workers who are self-employed on a small scale, about two-thirds of the country's workers are irregular. Only one percent of these people are union members.

As a matter of policy, Sim said, South Korea needs to reverse the overwhelming trend toward irregularization of the work force, with European-style laws that would limit the practice. She charged that employers have abused a law that made hiring irregular workers easier, in order to keep wages down. At the same time, the labor movement must work far harder to organize these workers as well as the fast-growing population of migrant workers from China and other Asian countries, she said.

"The mainstream labor movement must renew itself as the representative of the entire working class by organizing irregular and migrant workers," Sim said in her prepared remarks, delivered in English.

Sim expressed happiness about the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak by a protest movement driven in part by workers who organized in the face of repression. She said that the news from Cairo reminded her of the resistance in Kwangju, 1980, to military rule in South Korea.

"It was a time when there was a need for generational change," she said. Not long after the Kwangju massacre, Sim dropped out of college and got certification and a job as a sewing machine operator near Seoul, and began educating co-workers about how to organize and protest the "atrocious" conditions in factories.

"A human being cannot live alone with his or her own, individual hope," Sim told the audience. "They need to participate in what society and history are calling them to do."

The UCLA Center for Korean Studies hosted Sim, along with two co-sponsors, the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Department of Political Science.

Update 3/3/11: video of Sim's Feb. 23 presentation is available here.