Crane operators in South Korea announced on Tuesday that they would be on strike after a series of work-related accidents in recent weeks. Workers, who were overwhelmingly in favor of industrial action with 83.1 percent in favor, are calling on the government to improve security before they return to work.
Crane operators join a growing wave of international struggles as workers struggle against attacks on wages and working conditions.
The latest strike was triggered by an accident on June 5 in Incheon City, in which a crane dropped construction materials and injured a worker. Another worker was similarly injured on May 8 when a crane’s line broke, dropped material and hit another worker. About 3,300 workers from the Korean Construction Workers Union (KCWU), affiliated with the Korean Trade Union Confederation (KCTU), then voted to go on strike.
Gimpo airport cranes (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Accidents with small cranes are widespread. On May 16, a worker was killed in Donghae City when a crane collapsed overhead in a cement factory. On April 24, a worker fell from a crane in Incheon and died. The KCWU stated, “Since April 24th, there have been at least 8 small tower crane accidents across the country in which one worker was killed while three others were injured.”
Many of these accidents were caused by devices that had previously been deregistered by the government for safety reasons. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) had canceled a total of 369 cranes, citing equipment problems and allegedly prevented their use. In the past year, MOLIT inspected around 10 percent of the registered cranes or 590 units and found 4,000 deficiencies in the equipment.
This has not stopped construction companies from using the faulty equipment in order to save costs at the expense of safety. Crane operator Hyeon Byeong-seok told South Korean MBC News, “The equipment was operational because it was logged off, but the site manager didn’t care and told us to use it anyway.”
Striking workers are demanding proper monitoring of all small tower cranes, immediate cessation of use of all de-registered equipment and direct negotiations with MOLIT’s head, No Hyeong-uk, starting July 1.
The dangers to which workers are exposed are not new; they have existed for several years. Crane operators also went on strike in 2019 because of safety concerns and demanded higher wages. Fatal accidents have occurred since then, including at least three workers killed in crane accidents in January last year.
Construction workers understandably fear for their lives. However, it is a situation that is repeated around the world, especially under the COVID-19 pandemic. The ruling class in every country has done everything in their power to keep the workers in the workplace and to generate profits for the big business. This also applies to South Korea, where outbreaks of the deadly virus have not disrupted operations at workplaces such as distribution centers and car factories.
The struggle for safety on construction sites must be seen in this wider political context. The same corporate profit interests that dictate the use of dangerous devices to cut costs also underpin the grueling drive to force workers back into work as the virus is widespread.
The South Korean construction workers are therefore faced with the need to struggle not only against dishonest entrepreneurs, but against the entire capitalist system. Your allies are not politicians and trade union bureaucrats making vague promises to improve security, but the entire international working class.
The KCTU and KCWU are trying to convince workers that their security concerns can be addressed by the government and thus under capitalism. Jeon Jae-hui, an official from the KCWU, appealed to the Moon Jae-in administration, not other workers, saying, “They say they are small cranes, but there are many accidents that they are involved in are. There are many accidents across the country, so it is a dangerous device. We have repeatedly asked MOLIT to monitor this. “
Moon campaigned in the 2017 presidential election to cut the number of workplace deaths in half to around 500 a year. In other words, Moon came into office with the support of the KCTU and announced that 500 worker deaths per year were acceptable.
A new law passed in January aims to reduce workplace deaths, according to the Moon government and its ruling Democratic Party (DP). The law, which won’t go into effect until next year, is designed to give business owners or officers of a company a year in prison or a fine of up to a billion won ($ 897,000) if found liable for a death of the worker. Small and medium-sized companies have a two-year grace period, although most accidents occur in these companies.
DP lawmaker Gang Byeong-won stated on May 31, “We are aware of concerns that the law on industrial accidents at small and medium-sized industrial sites, which account for 80 percent of all related deaths, will not be effective.”
Little has changed in terms of the meager promises of “reform”. According to the Department of Employment and Labor, 882 workers died while on the job last year, or more than two a day. That was 27 more than in 2019. 238 employees died on the job in the first quarter of this year, bringing the total death toll to 952 this year.
In addition, 94 of the workers killed last year were non-Koreans, mostly migrant workers in construction and factories. Nevertheless, the KCTU and its member unions regularly stir up xenophobic sentiments.
In May, the KCWU launched a series of protests in Gwangju city calling for companies to hire only Korean native workers while denouncing illegally hired foreign workers. In other words, while Korean and foreign workers face the same exploitative and dangerous conditions, unions are trying to split them and shift the blame on foreign workers.
There is no reason to believe that the new labor law will have a significant impact on worker protection. Similar laws have done little to reduce widespread accidents at work in South Korea and are rife with loopholes to protect companies and their profit margins. Workers across the country and internationally must turn to their class brothers and sisters for a real struggle for job security and against capitalism.
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