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Struggling healthcare workers join labor unions in droves
  • By Marian Chu
  • Published 2017.08.08 15:19
  • Updated 2017.08.08 15:44
  • comments 0

Korea Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU) said Monday 11 new public, private and individual organizations had joined the union since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration.

As an OECD country, Korea has one of the lowest labor union organization rates of 10.2 percent. The average OECD labor union organization rate is 27.8 percent, with northern European countries such as Iceland (85.5 percent), Finland (69.0 percent) and Sweden (67.7 percent) far exceeding the average.

In the public sector, National Traffic Injury Rehabilitation Hospital국립교통재활병원 joined on May 24, followed by Chonnam National University Gwangju 2nd Intermediate Care Hospital광주시립제2요양병원 on Jul. 28, and Seonam Hospital서울시서남병원 on Jul. 31.

Among private hospitals, Dongguk University Ilsan Hospital동국대일산병원 and Konyang University Hospital 건양대병원 joined on Jun. 2, and Jul. 14, respectively.

Non-regular workers also formed unions, starting at the Catholic University of Korea St. Vincent’s Hospital성빈센트병원 on Apr. 14, followed by those at Pusan National University Hospital부산대병원, the Catholic University of Korea Uijeongbu St. Mary’s Hospital의정부성모병원, Suncheon Medical Center순천의료원, and Chonnam National University Hospital전남대병원 in the following four months.

Workers in the Daegu Regional Mental Health Welfare Center’s Daegu Ministry of Mental Health also joined recently, KHMU said.

KHMU attributes the recent increase in labor union membership to the Moon administration’s policy that calls for creating a “labor-respecting society.” Industry experts note active labor union activities indicate poor working conditions that have improved little over the past decade.

The healthcare industry, in particular, has been notorious for having a chronic lack of staff, high labor-intensity, and low pay as well as overdue wages and workplace abuses.

For instance, nurses and other medical workers at Konyang University Hospital were forced to turn in their cell phones during work and banned from turning on the air conditioner at nursing stations, KHMU said. Nurses also attested that they could not take proper maternity leave due to the shortage of medical staff.

Workers, spurred by the government’s new policies, have begun to join labor unions to even out the working field.

However, KHMU expects conflict between labor and management in hospitals. At Dongguk University Ilsan Hospital, for example, the hospital’s director has refused to attend collective negotiations with the union.

“Although the number of organizations joining the labor union is increasing, illegal and unfair labor practices such as monitoring, blocking, and repressing trade union establishments are still going on,” KHMU said in a statement. “We believe it’s necessary to strictly enforce laws against unfair labor practices and suppression of labor union activities.”

Industry experts point out that workers at large university hospitals and public hospitals are relatively freer to participate in union activities, while their counterparts at neighborhood clinics are not.

Due to their size and structure, local clinics have little opportunity to create labor unions, leaving workers to deal with poor working conditions and wages.

In particular, assistant nurses are reputed to have one of the lowest salaries in the industry. Recent statistics show that 29.7 percent of 621 surveyed nursing aides did not earn the legal minimum wage.

“The problem is with small- and medium-size hospitals,” said Lee Ju-ho, KHMU’s policy researcher. “It's hard to create labor organizations among neighborhood clinics. We will work with the Korea Licensed Practical Nurses Association to improve the working environment of nursing assistants working in small clinics.”


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