SEOUL, July 12 (Reuters) - 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 presidency.
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 reported.
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 Twitter. 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 work place”.
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 five-to-one.
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)