| SEOUL, July 12
SEOUL, July 12 It has to be one of the loneliest
picket lines going -- a woman by herself on the top of a crane.
For South Korean labour activist Kim Jin-suk, crane No. 85
at a Busan shipyard is her soapbox to demand workers' rights and
the reversal of a local shipbuilder's plans to lay off around
400 employees .
Kim's case has become a cause celebre in South Korea where
there is growing anger among the middle and working classes
towards the government's business-friendly policies and workers'
failure to get a slice of big companies' profits.
Kim and 700 others had gone on strike against the layoffs.
An agreement to go back to work was reached last month, but she
and about a hundred others refused to give up their protest.
And she has shown that she is prepared for the long haul --
she has already been on top of the crane, 35 metres off the
ground, for 188 days.
The 51-year-old former welder sleeps in the crane's cab, and
has so far seen out sub-zero temperatures, a typhoon, a heatwave
and lashing monsoon rains. She has no shower and uses a bucket
as a toilet.
"Every day is a life-and-death battle," she told Reuters by
telephone, adding the company's private guards had prevented
some food and books from being delivered to her by supporters,
but she had enough to survive.
"Bad weather and a food problem here is not a big deal
compared to what the people are fighting down there."
Analysts say the growing divide between rich and poor,
rising youth unemployment and inflation shape up as the biggest
issues confronting Lee Myung-bak in the final 18 months of his
Tax agency data shows the wage disparity is deepening in
Asia's fourth-biggest economy, with the top 20 percent of income
earners taking home nearly three quarters of the earnings
Won-taek Kang, a political expert at Seoul National
University, says Kim has attracted growing support due to the
growing frustration among blue collar workers and unemployed.
"It is closely related to the kind of oppressed response by
the government to the labour movement and labour market in
general," he said. "Big businesses are enjoying quite a
favourable situation under the Lee Myung-bak government."
On the weekend, more than 7,000 people rallied at Busan,
South Korea's second-largest city with a population of 3.5
million, in support of Kim's sit-in, arriving in a caravan of
about 185 so-called "Hope Buses".
But they failed to get close to the crane. Waves of riot
police stopped them a few hundred metres short of the dockyard.
The protest turned violent and police used water cannon mixed
with teargas fluids to disperse the crowd. Police said there
were about 50 arrests.
A spokesman for Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction
said most of those joining the rally had nothing to
do with the labour issue.
"They are politicising the situation which has been already
agreed to," he said, referring to an agreement to end the strike
on June 27.
"I couldn't see or hear anything" of the protest, Kim said,
adding she was kept updated throughout the clashes by her
supporters on the Internet. She has over 18,000 followers on
If last weekend's numbers are anything to go by, there
should be even more protesters at another Hope Bus rally in
August. In June, a few hundred had turned out at a pro-Kim
demonstration. Then protesters climbed over a wall with ladders
to enter the shipyard.
One of the organisers of the Hope Bus movement, poet Song
Kyung-dong, said increases in temporary positions and layoffs
had raised a sense of insecurity in South Korea.
"People do not talk about it, but there is an inherent anger
about this, and this is where the solidarity has emerged from,"
he said, according to the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper.
South Korea is no stranger to protests, with strong union
and student movements staging often violent rallies over the
past few decades. Protesters themselves have resorted to extreme
tactics, even committing suicide during demonstrations.
Kim recalled a Hanjin union leader's suicide in 2003 on the
same crane during a similar protest.
In the past couple of years, the Lee administration has
moved to rein in the union movement and quickly moved to break
up strikes. Some critics say he is being too heavy-handed, and
risks further alienating himself from the working class.
In May, Lee vowed to crack down on strikes that cut across
industries, saying "the public is never going to forgive any
attempt to undermine an entire industry through a strike at one
Lee's comments came after the government sent in 2,500 riot
police to break up a strike at an auto parts maker that had
threatened to disrupt production at Hyundai Motor
and Kia Motors , whose combined sales are fifth in
global car sales.
In a show of force, riot police decked out in body armour
and equipped with shields outnumbered protesters by about
Lee argued the striking factory workers were, in fact,
relatively well paid -- taking home on average 70 million won
($65,000) a year.
This week, British lender Standard Chartered
said it had suspended operations at 43 of its
392 branches of its South Korean banking unit due to failed
negotiations to reach an agreement with striking workers.
As well as union-led protests, there has also been a rise in
demonstrations against rising university tuition fees, as well
as protests by farmers against a U.S. free trade deal.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)