BUSAN, South Korea — Kim Jin-suk, a 51-year-old former welder, has taken up residence in the cab of a shipyard crane protesting labor cuts. She has managed to survive sub-zero temperatures, a recent typhoon, monsoon rains and the increasingly hot humid weather that comes with every Busan summer. And of course, she has no shower and is forced to use a bucket as a toilet.
Kim is a former employee of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction (HHIC) and has been holed up continuously since January. The company cut off power to the crane but she has managed to stay in contact through her smart phone which is charged by solar powered batteries. Kim has been Tweeting her supporters from her perch high above the shipyard to drum up support. She currently has over 19,000 followers on Twitter.
The growing popularity of Kim’s sit-in has caused HHIC to go on the offensive. This past Tuesday, Kim tweeted that HHIC security guards had begun to deploy a safety net around her crane, which usually indicates a plan to remove her by force.
"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."
According to the Montreal Gazette:
Kim's case has become a cause célèbre 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.
Won-taek Kang, a political expert at Seoul National University, told the Gazette that Kim has seen growing support due to bluecollar worker frustration: "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."
Last weekend more than 7,000 people rallied at Busan port, which is the 5th busiest in the world. The protesters tried to get close to the crane to show Kim their support but were blocked a few hundred meters short by waves of riot police. The protest turned ugly at that point and police used water cannon mixed with tear gas to disperse the crowd. There were about 50 arrests. Even CNN picked up on the story.
The protesters are planning another rally next month. Known as the Hope Bus movement, one of the organizers is poet, Song Kyungdong. He said that an increase in temporary workers coupled with layoffs has raised a sense of financial insecurity for South Korean workers.
The demographic of the protesters has expanded and grown more diverse. The mass of last week's protesters ranged from representatives of political parties, labor activists, university students, health care professionals, religious figures, to legal professionals.
"People do not talk about it, but there is an inherent anger about this, and this is where the solidarity has emerged from," the poet, Song, said.
For a great on the spot report from the protest check out a blog post on Three Wise Monkeys' site.