Remember Ssangyong

From the new issue of NEWS & LETTERS, May-June 2011:

Remember Ssangyong

It has been two years since the management of Ssangyong Motor Company in Pyongtaek, South Korea, announced layoffs of 1,000 workers. Shortly thereafter, those workers occupied their plant and held it for 77 days, from May to August 2009, when they finally succumbed to a massive police and army assault.

In the aftermath, many militants were arrested. Some were sentenced to years in prison. Most, however, were laid off, some with the hope of recall after one year, which never materialized.

Two years after the announcement, 14 people, both strikers and immediate family, are dead. Five Ssangyong workers committed suicide, and five died from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack or brain hemorrhage. Doctors believe these were caused by severe stress in the aftermath of the strike and layoffs. Some of the suicides resulted from economic problems following the layoffs. The South Korean daily newspaper Hangyereh calls the 14 deaths “social homicides.”

In February 2011, one worker on unpaid time off died of a heart attack. Under the pressure of the layoffs, his wife had killed herself in April 2010. They had two children. The worker’s bank balance was close to zero.

Hangyereh reported that more than half the Ssangyong strikers one hospital saw were suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, and 80% were suffering severe depression. Almost all the workers have reported a deterioration in their marriages. Their average post-restructuring monthly income, of 822,800 Won ($757), represented a 74% reduction from their previous salary.

After the defeat of the strike, 462 workers were put on unpaid leave. The promised one-year period has elapsed, yet the company maintains it is unable to begin reinstatement. Workers who retired or were fired are having difficulty finding new employment because of the Ssangyong “scarlet letter,” and have been making do with temporary jobs and day-to-day work. Also absent has been any social safety network to address their deteriorating health and financial anxieties.

We must never forget the brothers and sisters who have died in the class war.

–L.G.

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