Dinner ladies from hell prepare for strike-breaking South Korean police

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The Independent Online
WHEN the inevitable happens, and the legions of riot police finally force their way into the main entrance of the Hyundai car works, three massive obstacles will confront them.

The first is a barrier of scaffolding and scrap metal moved into position by strikers yesterday afternoon. The second is a row of 50 new cars rolled into place after talks broke down a few hours later. The most formidable of all will come next, in front of the burly car workers with their head- bands and metal staves, wearing handkerchiefs over their mouths to keep out the tear-gas - the battling dinner ladies of Ulsan.

Some 7,000 strikers are camped out in the car plant but the 173 dinner ladies, sacked from their jobs in the Hyundai canteen, are their shock troops.

"This morning at 4am the police started coming into the grounds and it was us old biddies who rushed to the gates first," said Mrs Park Seung Up yesterday in the damp tent she shares with colleagues. "We ran up and shouted `You'll never get us out of here alive!' and they left pretty soon after that. Whenever they start their raid, we'll be ready - the old ladies will be first on the scene."

South Koreans are no strangers to riots, and Ulsan, home to a half-a- dozen industries of the giant Hyundai Corporation, has seen plenty of strikes. But never before have the stakes been as high. For Hyundai Motors, and the conglomerate of which it forms part, it is about its survival in the worst economic crisis since the Korean War. For the government of the new president, Kim Dae Jung, it is a test of his ability to carry out reforms promised in return for last year's $58bn (pounds 36bn) rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But for the Hyundai work force, it is a matter of livelihoods, even of life and death. In the past two days 13,000 riot police have assembled in front of the plant to end the occupation. Five hundred wives and children have joined the sacked workers inside the plant - when the Siege of Hyundai becomes the Battle of Hyundai, they promise to stand alongside their husbands and fathers.

"The police want to come in and this is our biggest concern," says Park Yoo Ki, the union's director of planning. "It's only a matter of time, and we're sure many will get hurt - men, women and kids."

In South Korea these days, talk of victory or death is more than just rhetoric. The economy is estimated to be shrinking by 5 per cent a year. Unemployment is climbing to 8 per cent or more and crime is increasing by 5.5 per cent. But the grimmest statistic this year is the suicide rate, which rose by more than a third in the first quarter - 25 South Koreans are killing themselves every day.

"It is impossible for me to get another job at my age," says Mrs Park, 49. "My husband is completely useless and my son doesn't work either. We get nothing from the government. We have nowhere else to go, so this is it - this is our last stand."

This is a big labour dispute in all respects. The Hyundai Motors plant is the biggest car factory in South Korea, and the damage done by the strike is also immense. Production has been set back by 82,800 cars; orders are going unfulfilled and suppliers of parts and services have no work to do. By the firm's reckoning, Hyundai and its dependent companies have lost $1bn between them.

For the government there is a broader fear - of the damage the strike may do to South Korea's international image. Since the collapse last year of its currency, the won, and the IMF rescue, the country's only hope of long-term recovery has been to attract foreign investors to buy into its cash-strapped firms. The spectacle of a violent labour dispute can only discourage such help. "This is not a problem limited to a single company," said President Kim's party spokesman, Chung Dong Young. "The entire world, especially foreign investors, are watching Hyundai."

The union says workers are bearing a disproportionate burden of the crisis, created by politicians and big companies such as Hyundai. The government has plans for welfare programmes but for the moment state benefits for sacked workers seldom last longer than four months.

Both sides have offered concessions: the company, to reduce redundancies; the union, to take wage cuts and unpaid holidays. But no deal has been reached and hopes of finding one appear to have gone.

Yesterday afternoon army helicopters flew over the plant. The riot police have tractors and tear-gas cannons in reserve. It seems inevitable they will eventually break through the barricades, where the wives, children and dinner- ladies will be waiting.