Construction workers clogged up downtown Seoul on Tuesday, but not for the reason you may expect. They marched through the city center to demand companies and the government do more to improve South Korea’s poor worker safety record.
The country’s fatal accident rate per 100,000 construction workers currently stands as one of the worst in the OECD countries and ten times worse than those in Europe. The construction workers claim companies cut costs and the government is not doing enough to regulate them.
“There is a written law in the constitution about deaths at construction sites. It says that no one should be killed. It says that salaries should be paid at the right time. It says that if the management makes a mistake, they should take responsibility,” says Lee Yong-dae, president of the Construction Industry Union. “However, those incompetent and corrupt politicians and government officials, including the Lee Myeong-bak administration and Park Geun-hye, do not follow those rules that are clearly stated in the constitution.”
Workers also voiced their dissatisfaction regarding other issues such as low pay, government corruption and the handling of the Sewol ferry disaster. Other protestors brought their own issues. Cable TV workers and members of the medical union protested growing privatisation in their industries.
There have been a series of high profile accidents at major construction sites over the past two years. The Lotte World Tower project has suffered two fatal accidents. A bridge collapsed killing two migrant Chinese workers last year sparking a government investigation, and a similar collapse in Busan killed four workers after the company pushed ahead with construction to meet deadlines.
The government introduced the Occupational Health and Safety Management System (OHSMS) in 2006 to help combat the high level of accidents. The companies that fully adopted the law have seen a 67 percent decrease in accidents, however pushing more companies to implement the system has been difficult. In the construction industry the number of fatal workplace deaths has risen from seven in 2008 to a peak of 56 in 2012. Last year also saw ten fatal accidents with a total of 26 deaths.
According to the International Labor Organization, the statistics for accidents may be even higher for construction because many go unreported. Also workers are often temporary and may suffer the effects of work related injuries or stress after the project has finished, injuries that would not be included in the statistics.
Workers claim profit maximisation is the main reason for the reluctance of companies to improve safety. “If they follow all the laws, it takes longer to complete the construction and a huge amount of money should be spent on safety. To save money, labor workers are being killed. That’s the reality,” says Jeong Chang-hwan, a worker from Busan.
There may be other reasons for the number of accidents according to recent research. South Koreans work some of the longest hours in the OECD, which increases the chance of accidents at worksites. Also incidents are proportionally much higher among workers over 45 years old, a sign of their reluctance to take up new safety practices. The workers say it is up to the company and government first to enforce the law.
“The labor workers’ mindset should also be changed but before that construction companies must follow safety measures thoroughly as in the law. There is a law but it is not being followed. First, construction companies do not follow it and the government also does not oversee the companies,” says Jeong.
The safety record of South Korean companies will also have a significant effect in many other countries. Construction firms such Hyundai and Samsung are highly active around the globe, particularly in the Middle East. Many of the companies won construction contracts for the Qatar 2022 World Cup preparation, resulting in a doubling of trade between the countries. Campaigners have already questioned these companies for their treatment of migrant workers and Amnesty International also pressured Hyundai E&C to inspect the working conditions of subcontracted laborers.