S. Korean labour group stages nationwide rallies despite virus surge

South Korean labour group staged nationwide rallies on Wednesday despite calls for restraint following the recent resurgence of the coronavirus.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the more militant of the country’s two largest umbrella labour organisations, held the rallies in addition to a strike to protest the Moon Jae-in government’s labour reform policies, Yonhap news agency reported.

The rallies involved no more than nine people in Seoul, in line with the city government’s new social distancing rules. But rallies in other parts of the country drew larger numbers depending on the restrictions of each local government.

The labour ministry said a preliminary estimate put the number of union members participating in the strike at around 34,000, or 3 per cent of all KCTU members.

Most of the striking members belonged to the Kia Motors and Hyundai Heavy Industries chapters of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, a key subgroup of the KCTU. These workers began a strike of four hours per day.

In Seoul, union members gathered outside the office of the ruling Democratic Party’s Seoul chapter, as well as the offices of DP Chairman Representatives Lee Nak-yon and 13 other DP lawmakers.

In Ulsan rallies were held outside the city hall and the office of the DP’s Ulsan chapter, involving nearly 100 members each.

A rally in Gwangju drew around 200 members, exceeding the city’s limit of 99 under Level 1.5 social distancing guidelines, according to the local health authorities.

All participants appeared to be wearing face masks and maintaining a distance between one another.

“As always, we will fight in compliance with the antivirus measures that have been strengthened in the wake of the resurgence of COVID-19,” a KCTU official said.

The rallies came a day after the government raised its social distancing scheme to Level 2 in the greater Seoul area amid an alarming increase in daily new COVID-19 cases this month. More than 300 new cases have been reported daily in recent days.

At a government meeting early Wednesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged the KCTU to cancel its plans, citing the need to bring the pandemic under control ahead of the national college entrance exam on December 3.

“While the KCTU has said it will follow disease control guidelines, it is very concerning given the developments of the COVID-19 situation as of late,” he said.

The health ministry and the Seoul city government also warned of stern measures in the event the rallies are held in violation of social distancing rules.

“The government will respond strictly without exception,” Sohn Young-rae, a health ministry spokesman, said at a press briefing.

Park Yoo-mi, a disease control official at the city government, told a separate briefing: “We will demand compensation for damages if (the rallies lead to) an infection.”

The KCTU’s demands center on withdrawing a proposed bill revision banning striking workers from occupying key facilities at workplaces. The group has also demanded the enactment of three other bills that would improve the rights of workers employed by small businesses and hold companies accountable for grave industrial disasters.