2013 ended and 2014 began with a number of significant struggles of the working class around the world. These workers are reaching conclusions that they will have to take to the streets and fight for a future for themselves and their families. They are aware that in the drive to increase profits the market system will drive down their wages and living standards for them and their families
From rail workers in South Korea fighting against the privatisation of the rail industry in South Korea to poverty-stricken garment workers in Cambodia fighting for an increase to the paltry minimum wage they are paid for making clothes for the Gap, Nike, H & M and other high street multinational retailers. Many of these struggles initially on the industrial front have rapidly mushroomed into bigger anti-establishment movements as the seething anger and the pent up frustration burst to the surface on a whole range of issues.
The mass movement in South Korea which culminated in a protest of more than 100,000 in Seoul was triggered by the call for a general strike in response to state repression of the railway workers strike against privatisation. The strike was made illegal and in an attempt to arrest the union leaders the headquarters of the trade union federation was besieged by the police.
Many came out in support of the railway workers in particular, but there were also people who came to show their opposition to the establishment. The union issue was the spark that lit the fire. There has been seething anger in South Korea against political corruption the South Korean government regularly violates workers’ rights and clamps down heavily on trade union or workers activities. The enormous demonstration in Seoul of 100,000 plus demanded an end to repression and respect for workers’ rights.
Amid rising political tensions, the country’s biggest union umbrella, the 700,000-strong Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), has called for a one-day general strike on 25 February.
About 15,000 unionists, or about 45% of the workforce, of Korea Railroad Corp. (Korail) walked off the job 9 December to protest what they saw as a preliminary step to privatising rail service—a plan by management to spin off the most lucrative slice of its business
Korail said it would dismiss 4,213 unionists and filed a damages lawsuit against 194 union leaders. A court issued arrest warrants for 10 union leaders for obstruction of business operations. On 17 December 17, the police raided the union’s offices nationwide. Though it’s seldom reported in the global media, tens of thousands of South Koreans have been holding weekend rallies since spring, protesting the intelligence agency’s meddling in presidential elections.
On 28 December, in the middle of the rail workers’ strike and after the police raid on the KCTU, about 100,000 protesters rallied to support the strike and to call for an independent investigation into the government’s electoral irregularities. Hyundai Motor trade unionists refused overtime for an hour to demonstrate support for the planned general strike. The slogan for the general strike will be, “No political power can defeat the people.”
Some of the most oppressed and downtrodden layers of society are moving into struggle. In an unprecedented development African asylum seekers in Israel have been staging a series of protests with the largest to date 20,000 in Tel Aviv on Sunday 5 January and 10,000 travelling by bus to Jerusalem on 8 January. Their demand, which will be all too familiar to asylum seekers in Ireland, is to be recognised as refugees, that they are not kept for long periods of time with no proper status and they are have the right to work.
The heroic struggle of the garment workers in Cambodia is the beginnings of extremely low paid workers demanding a decent wage and conditions. It is linked with protests on conditions and health and safety of other garment workers in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other low pay economies.
Hundreds of thousands of mainly women workers went on strike to demand a doubling of the minimum wage to $160 per month, about $8 per day and improved working conditions. Workers simply cannot survive on the current wages. Many of them suffer ill health due to poverty, over-work and illnesses caused by chemicals on the fabric.
The struggle of the garment workers began to connect and join forces with other opposition forces who have been protesting for months calling for new elections since July. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party understanding the significance of this moved to clamp down the movement with four people being shot dead and many wounded, some seriously. This has caused a lull in the struggle with many workers fleeing back to their villages in fear. However this is only one phase of the struggle and workers will move back into struggle.