Korean unionist’s death brings Yoon administration’s anti-labor policies back into spotlight

Posted on : 2023-05-02 17:12 KST Modified on : 2023-06-22 14:02 KST
A laborer's self-immolation on May Day comes amid the president's continued stress on the rule of law in industrial relations
A union leader surnamed Yang is loaded into an ambulance outside the Gangneung branch of the Chuncheon District Court on May 1 after self-immolating ahead of a warrant review hearing. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)
A union leader surnamed Yang is loaded into an ambulance outside the Gangneung branch of the Chuncheon District Court on May 1 after self-immolating ahead of a warrant review hearing. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)

Amidst the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s designation of union activities in the construction sector as “violence at construction sites,” as well as ensuing extensive investigations, an executive member of a construction union self-immolated in front of a court building on Monday, International Workers’ Day, ahead of pre-arrest questioning. Labor groups say the tragedy was brought about by heavy-handed investigations by the government and investigative authorities.

According to coverage by the Hankyoreh, the district leader for the Gangneung, Sokcho, Goseong, and Yangyang areas under the Gangwon Province branch of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions-affiliated Korean Construction Workers’ Union (KCTU-KCWU), a 50-year-old surnamed Yang, self-immolated in front of the Chuncheon District Court’s Gangneung branch building in Gangwon Province around 9:35 am on Monday.

Immediately afterward, the union leader was transported to Hangang Sacred Heart Hospital, a burn center in Seoul, in critical condition but ultimately died the next day, on Tuesday.

Yang had been under investigation since February on charges of racketeering, for allegedly coercing construction companies operating in Sokcho and Gangneung to employ union members and pay full-time union expenses.

On April 26, prosecutors applied for an arrest warrant for these charges, and Yang was scheduled for pre-arrest questioning at the Gangneung branch of the Chuncheon District Court at 3 pm on Monday, along with two other union leaders.

Yang, who began his tenure as a district leader for the KCTU’s construction union last year, acting as a regional representative for the union, appears to have become a target of investigation in the process of spearheading efforts to reach a collective agreement with construction companies operating in his area.

“[The police and the prosecution] applied the charge of racketeering on all cases related to the signing of a collective agreement, such as the payment of full-time union expenses and the employment of union members,” said Seo Il-kyeong, head of the KCWU’s legal department.

Before self-immolating, Yang made a post on a social media platform popular amongst construction union leaders, writing, “I carried out union activities lawfully and without committing crimes, but [the charges applied to me] are obstruction of business and intimidation, not a violation of assembly law.”

“My pride cannot abide this,” he added.

Kim Jeong-bae, head of the Gangwon Province branch of the union in question, said, “Yang would often say that the arrest warrant had been requested based only on the management’s side of the story, and that the investigation [into him] was far-fetched.”

Yang, who lived in Sokcho, Gangwon Province, with his wife, a retail laborer, and two children, both in middle school, was a construction laborer who joined the KCWU in November 2019 and served as the leader of its rebar team.

During a resolution rally held Monday afternoon near Gwanghwamun in Seoul’s Jongno District as well as locations across South Korea, Jang Ok-ki, the chairperson of the KCWU, said, “Through the condemnation of lawful union activities as illegal, over 1,000 construction laborers have been secretly investigated and 15 arrested.”

“The administration will have to take responsibility for trampling on human dignity,” Jang went on.

The construction union announced that a general strike will take place on July 10.

By Kim Hae-jeong, staff reporter; Jang Hyeon-eun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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