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Workers Strike in South Korea - 2002-02-25

In South Korea, state workers launched a strike Monday, and the government responded by issuing arrest warrants for the strike leaders. Some workers, however, quickly reached an accord with the government.

Thousands of striking workers in South Korea say they want the government to postpone plans to sell off assets, and to cut working hours and boost wages. The walkout, which involves state employees in the rail, gas and electricity sectors, began after union leaders and management failed to reach an agreement during overnight negotiations.

The gas workers, however, later Monday agreed to return to work, after the government promised to discuss with the union the timing and process for privatizing some operations. The government also issued arrest warrants for 37 union leaders. The government says the strike is illegal.

Henry Morris is an independent business consultant in Seoul who says the unions' greatest concern is that government privatization plans will lead to job cuts. The government wants to turn government-run utilities and rail services into private companies. "They see staff being jettisoned ahead of the privatization process itself, and that has upset them," he says. "If you look at the way the [rail] system operates here, it is far more heavily manned than similar systems in other major cities in this region."

Officials say the protests by gas and power workers will have limited effect because of a high level of automation at South Korean utilities and the use of non-union employees. However, the walkout by railway workers is causing confusion and travel delays. Seoul, the capital, is deploying shuttle buses to help commuters reach their offices.

The militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the second largest labor group in the country, says that tens of thousands of additional workers will strike Tuesday unless the government changes labor laws to guarantee a maximum five-day work week. Many Korean state employees work five-and-a-half days a week and have little control over their shifts.

The strike comes on the fourth anniversary of the beginning of President Kim Dae-jung's administration. Mr. Kim has repeatedly said that restructuring government agencies, including public-sector layoffs, is crucial to building a stronger economy. However, the president has said he supports labor unions' demand for a reduced work week.