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Scars Linger at Ssangyong 1 Year After Violent Strike

Posted August. 05, 2010 11:29,   


Last summer, Ssangyong Motor`s main plant in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, resembled a battlefield amid an intense labor struggle.

Tires were set on fire and bolts and nuts were flying. The strike eventually came to a dramatic end, leaving deep scars in both labor and management.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the end of the Ssangyong strike. The carmaker’s workers and management are struggling to get back on their feet amid the ruins of the labor strife.

Due to their cooperation, Ssangyong’s sales have nearly tripled, with a new model and process for the company’s sale under way.

Yet the scars have yet to heal. Workers who were forced to go on unpaid leave have been scraping by over the past year, with some working in construction as day workers.

○ Sea of change in labor relations

The Pyeongtaek plant remained quiet Wednesday as workers went on vacation, waiting for the chance to work overtime Thursday and Friday. All five of the country’s carmakers and their suppliers go on vacation simultaneously in the first week of August.

Ssangyong Motor is the only automaker to offer overtime as its SUVs such as the Rexton and Kyron are selling well.

Overtime opportunities in summer vacation were agreed on by the company union. Ssangyong`s labor and management say the biggest change since last year’s strike is labor relations.

The union seceded from the metal workers` union under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a militant umbrella labor organization. In May, the Ssangyong union was the first among its peers at major corporations to accept the "time-off" rule, which restricts the number of full-time union representatives on salary.

Ssangyong workers say their union`s change sometimes makes its members "feel sorry."

Stronger labor-management unity has led to increased sales. Ssangyong sold 7,369 units in July, up from 2,012 units in August last year. Domestic sales jumped from 940 to 2,738 units over the same period while exports surged from 1,072 to 4,631 units.

With sales growth coupled with an anticipated boom after the launch of a new vehicle in September, the company expects to achieve its sales target of 85,000 units for this year.

With Ssangyong turning around, its workers are enjoying a summer completely different from last year’s. Seo Byeong-ha, who works at a paint workshop at the Pyeongtaek plant, is spending his summer vacation with his family in Mount Jiri.

"As soon as I returned to the company last year, everything was in such chaos that I couldn’t even think about going on vacation," he said. "I’m grateful for a situation different from last year`s and am grateful but also feel sorry (for those still on unpaid leave)."

○ Painful year for those on unpaid leave

For those on unpaid leave, however, summer vacation is an unwelcome break imposed on them because they have no work.

One such worker has a part-time job at a moving agency. Few people move in the heat of summer, so he waits for phone calls looking for workers.

"I want to get a new job at a different company but finding a job is difficult because I was a Ssangyong Motor employee," he said, adding he earns less than 800,000 won (683 U.S. dollars) a month.

Fellow furloughed worker Yoon Dae-san, 50, has been working in construction as a day laborer. In September last year, he earned 60,000 won (51 dollars) a day working at a construction site for a U.S. military base before doing electrical wiring in Dangjin County, South Chungcheong Province.

He returned to Pyeongtaek 15 days ago to work on a road construction site. "We spent our lives making cars so we aren’t skilled workers at part-time jobs in manual labor," he said sighing. "I was often criticized for not doing a good job, something which made me even sadder."

Whether the 462 workers on furlough will be reinstated remains unclear. When the strike ended, labor and management agreed to put those on unpaid leave on two-shift rotations within a year depending on the production situation.

Management has yet to decide whether to reinstate them, however.

"What frustrates me most is that there’s no word on when I’ll be reinstated," Han said. "I just want to know whether I can return to work."

Yoon added, "I just wish we were on rotational leave (a type of job sharing)."

Those on unpaid leave are considering holding a protest in front of the plant Friday.

Their colleagues who have kept their positions express regret over the situation, too. Lee Sang-gyeong, a workshop manager of an assembly team, said staff are embarrassed when coming across former colleagues on the street or hearing about their dire situations.

"We’ve no choice but to work hard to help the company turn around quickly and get our colleagues back to work," Lee said.

nuk@donga.com hparks@donga.com