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“Offshoring resistance?” South Korea’s “Hope-Bus” movement and its repercussions in the Philippines

Posted By admin On May 21, 2013 @ 1:45 pm In Abstracts for 2013, Social Sciences | Comments Disabled

Elisabeth Schober, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow

Dept. of Social Anthropology

University of Oslo

The year of 2011 in South Korea was marked by one extended labor struggle: activist Kim Jin-Sook, a then 51-year-old former welder at the Hanjin shipyard in Busan, spent 309 consecutive days on a crane. She started her “aerial sit-in-strike” on crane number 85 in January of that year to protest against the dismissal of 400 workers – the latest lay-offs of a total of 3.000 jobs lost at the shipyard over the course of a decade. In 2003 already, this crane had been a site of tragedy: unionist Kim Joo-ik committed suicide on it at the end of a failed strike. Eight years later, in a message left behind for her friends on the day she made her way up the crane, Mrs. Kim explained that “this was the hardest choice for me to make because I knew what Crane #85 means to us. I will step down from this crane alive, which is what Jooik could never do but desperately wanted to do”.

Over the course of time, tens of thousands of supporters traveled from all parts of the country on so-called “hope buses” to then gather at the shipyard to express their solidarity with Kim. Rather quickly the hope bus movement became a serious threat to the government of then-president Lee Myung-bak as well, whose business-friendly policies were increasingly antagonizing large segments of society. As the Kyunghyang Daily wrote in an editorial: “The voices of Kim and the Bus of Hope transcended the boundaries of HHIC’s shipyard as an individual workplace, and echoed throughout the nation”. At the heart of the dispute was also the question as to whether Hanjin’s economic status at that time actually warranted the mass dismissals of unionized workers. South Korea’s powerful shipbuilding industry is currently the global market’s leader, with ships also representing the country’s number 1 export item as of 2008. The company, like the other major players in the Korean shipbuilding industry, has been steadily increasing the number of workers hired through sub-contractors (out of app. 100.000 jobs at all shipyards in South Korea, about 50% are filled by precarious laborers nowadays). Despite such measures taken to cut labor costs in the country, the company still claimed that the economic crisis hit its business so hard that additional cutbacks and layoffs became inevitable. And indeed, at the shipyard in Busan not a single ship building order has come in since 2009. All the while, however, more than 30 deals to build large vessels have been made at Hanjin’s 2nd shipyard in the Philippines.

In such a way, the company’s new ship construction site in Subic Bay came into focus, which was erected in a Philippine Special Economic Zone in 2006. The facility in Subic Bay, located on the site of a former U.S. Navy base, gained some notoriety around the time of Kim Jin-Sook’s struggle as well, as the number of occupational deaths of workers rose to 31 in 2011. Rumors of poor safety standards at the shipyard, together with accusations of abuse through the hands of the Korean foremen working at the site spread quickly, with the de-facto “no union”-policy of the shipbuilders accelerating the conflict. Subsequently, some efforts were also made by labor activists in both Korea and the Philippines to link up their struggles – an attempt to “offshore resistance”, so to speak, that came as a reaction to the company’s offshoring move that triggered a set of economic, social and environmental challenges at both sites involved.

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