The Guardian 11 October, 2006
Seoul workers outsourced, sacked
A determined group of hotel workers in Korea — 13 women and two men — are waging a critical battle against outsourcing. Since January 1 this year, members of the Renaissance Labour Union, a member of the International Union of Food Workers (IUF)-affiliated Korean Federation of Service Workers’ Unions (KFSU), have been picketing the Renaissance Hotel in Seoul every day in support of their demand to be reinstated as direct employees of the hotel.
The workers — most of whom had worked for the Renaissance Hotel as housekeeping staff since the establishment opened in 1988 — were transferred to a phoney "independent" service company five years ago in an operation which the government has determined was illegal but has so far refused to take action against.
In 2001, over one hundred housekeeping employees were forced to resign. Without their assent, severance pay was transferred to their bank accounts. Management gave assurances that they would return to work as employees of an outsourcing company — the newly created "Renaissance Service Team" — under the same terms and conditions they had received as direct employees of the hotel. Their wages, however, fell by 60 percent as outsourced employees performing the same work as before.
The workers formed a union and held a brief strike in September 2002, followed by legal action against the hotel management. In May 2004 a Labour Ministry investigation determined that the subcontracting constituted an "illegal dispatch" and ordered the hotel to employ them directly.
The employer failed to respond to this procedure, and in November 2004 the union initiated a lawsuit on behalf of 15 workers, charging the hotel with delayed payment of wages — the difference between direct employees’ wages and those paid by the service company.
In retaliation, the outsourcing company terminated their services on December 31, 2005. Beginning the following day, union members initiated a daily picket which has continued every day this year.
Despite the fact that the hotel has been under judicial investigation since October 2005 for failing to rectify the illegal employment of subcontracted workers, the prosecution has failed to take action. When the workers were terminated on December 31 last year, the hotel dropped the "Renaissance Service Team" but contracted housekeeping services to two new labour agencies.
The union therefore has two key demands: reinstatement of the illegally outsourced workers as direct hotel employees, and indictment and prosecution of the hotel management for violation of the law and the Labour Ministry’s ruling that the outsourcing scam constituted an "illegal dispatch".
The union is leading a tough fight against two major trends. The first, common to the hospitality sector, is the growing separation of ownership and control, which has facilitated outsourcing and the degradation of hotel workers’ employment conditions. The Renaissance Seoul is run on a long-term management contract by Marriott International. Marriott’s remaining shares in the hotel were purchased in May 2006 by the Korean Sambu Construction Co Ltd, parent company of the Namwoo Tourism Co Ltd, which formally owns the hotel. Marriott International’s goal, the corporate website tells us, is to "create significant value by aggressively building its brands."
Aggressive outsourcing is a pillar of this corporate strategy.
Outsourcing and casualisation, however, are universal trends challenging unions in every sector and around the world. The Renaissance Labour Union is struggling on behalf of outsourced workers everywhere, but their struggle is particularly significant in Korea, where every government in recent years has been trying to push a legislative agenda which would facilitate even greater use of casual labour in a country where over 60 percent of the workforce is already employed on a non-permanent "irregular" basis.