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The Peninsula

Coronavirus Weakens Labor Unions

Published March 3, 2020
Author: Korea View

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Coronavirus outbreak is likely to cripple the already-declining offline retail industry in South Korea.
  • Last week, the Blue House announced policies to assist major conglomerates to cope with the coronavirus crisis.
  • Most labor union gatherings were postponed or canceled due to coronavirus.

Implications: Coronavirus crisis may weaken South Korea’s labor unions by limiting their ability to mobilize workers amid infection fears and justifying claims that more flexible hiring and layoff policies are necessary to ensure the survival of domestic corporations. Recently, Lotte Shopping announced plans to shut down 30 percent of its offline stores. This is expected to cut over 50,000 employees. In response, Lotte’s labor union criticized the downsizing plan as shifting the consequences of poor management to the workers. However, the union of retail sector workers remained relatively quiet in the past few weeks as cases of coronavirus infections increased. The focus has instead shifted to demands for heightened safety measures against the coronavirus for the delivery workers.

Context: The Korean Mart Labor Union has been increasingly vocal in recent years, but have been stymied by growing challenges in the offline retail sector. Worsening market conditions due to the spread of the coronavirus is expected to further limit space for labor activism. Simultaneously, collective action by labor unions waned across the sector as the disease is discouraging workers from physically coming together for protests and other actions. Before the spread of the coronavirus, retailer Homeplus had faced significant pushback from its workers – but these protests have effectively disappeared since the spread of the coronavirus.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user odius kim

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