The Guardian 23 April, 2008
E-Land union's 300th day of strike
The labour union of the E-Land hypermarket and department stores in South Korea marked the 300th day of its strike on April 17. With no breakthrough in sight, Kim Gyeong-wook, the head of the E-Land union, expressed a sense of frustration, saying, "The E-Land dispute will only end if the union dies or the company dies."
Since the strike began in June 2007 the union and management have met several times, but the two sides have failed to narrow the gaps on key issues such as job security for part-time workers, rehiring of fired union workers and punishment of striking workers. Intermittent negotiations between the union and management were stalled again in early April.
On June 30, 2007, a day before the law governing irregular, or part-time, workers came into force, some 500 unionised workers at E-Land launched a sit-in strike and occupied one of the companyís discount outlets, the Homever store in Seoulís Sangam-dong. At the time, E-Land workers said:
"The company laid off a large number of part-time workers and changed their status to outsourced labour to avoid the law that requires an employer to convert part-time employees who have worked for more than two years into regular workers." Before the strike, E-Land laid off some 790 part-time workers, mostly female cashiers, in retail affiliates such as Newcore and Homever.
The E-land case has been cited as an example of how companies can exploit a loophole in the law by forcing part-time workers to work on temporary contracts through an outsourcing company. Labor groups and civic organisations had strongly criticised E-Land for laying its part-time workers off and a campaign to boycott E-Land stores was launched ahead of the Chusok Thanksgiving holiday shopping season. The union has continued to hold sit-in strikes and street demonstrations. In retaliation against such actions, E-Land fired some 30 union officials late last year.
One of the thorniest issues in the E-Land dispute is whether the company plans to guarantee job security for part-time workers. The union has called for the company to guarantee job security for part-time employees worked more than three months.
But the company said it will guarantee job security for part-time employees worked more than 18 months, citing a prior agreement with the union. "The company recently changed employees worked more than 18 months to permanent part-time status, but it was aimed at taking credit to itself because it was part of the agreement with the union," Kim said.
Although the strike has continued for 300 days, the government is still "folding its hands behind its back," saying "It should be resolved by the union and management voluntarily. The government wonít demand a concession by one side or the other for an early resolution of the dispute," an official of the Ministry of Labour said.
"That means the Labour Ministry wonít present a proposal of arbitration," the ministry official said. Last year, former Labour Minister Lee Sang-soo offered to meet with the two sides for "intensive negotiations." However, current Labour Minister Lee Young-hee has emphasised that the two sides "should voluntarily resolve" the dispute.
Kim Seong-hee, the Director of the Korea Non-Regular Labour Centre, said, "For the government to play a role as a fair arbitrator, it should present an alternative plan for the reinstatement of part-time workers and workers who have been fired. In the context of setting a standard for measures for non-regular workers, it would be desirable for a pan-governmental task force to resolve the E-Land dispute. Civic organisations and the government could act to resolve the dispute by forming a fair framework for arbitration."