Unite has helped to bring a positive end to an epic 13-year struggle involving hunger strikes, occupations and self-immolation by Korean guitar makers who were dismissed by their employer for organising against horrendous working conditions.
The labour dispute between 25 guitar makers and Korean-based Cort Guitars, the longest in the country’s history, was settled during negotiations that resulted in the workers receiving an apology and compensation on April 22.
The long-awaited victory came just hours after a letter organised and co-signed by Unite urging Cort’s UK partners Manson Guitar Works to pressure the firm into righting its wrongs was picked up by South Korea’s national press.
The workers were laid off by Cort in 2007 after they formed a union to fight for decent wages and safe working conditions.
According to an investigation cited by the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU), who took up the workers’ cause and provided them with representation, 59 per cent of staff were suspected to have developed diseases from exposure to organic solvents whilst working for low pay under draconian conditions in a windowless factory owned by Cort.
Instead of acknowledging the workers’ grievances, Cort suddenly claimed financial difficulties, fired all its staff, shut down its Korean factories and moved its manufacturing operations to Indonesia.
The workers refused to accept the money troubles excuse given by Cort – one of the world’s largest guitar manufacturers – and began a more than decade long campaign for justice.
During the campaign, one worker set fire to himself, while others staged sit ins and protests at Cort’s Seoul headquarters and organised domestic and international solidarity that drew support from rock stars such as Tom Morello, Zack de la Rocha, Boots Riley and Wayne Kramer.
But despite their tireless efforts the workers were abandoned by South Korea’s justice system and – until a few days ago – ignored by their former employer.
Unite became involved after receiving a letter from the KMWU expressing concern for one of the workers – Lim Jae-chun – who was in the midst of 42-day hunger strike outside of Cort’s headquarters.
The KMWU asked Unite to support their call for Manson Guitar Works to put pressure on Cort, with whom they have a partnership, to do the right thing.
Unite made contact with the UK’s Musicians Union (MU) as well as the International Federation of Musicians (IFM) and together the three organisations co-signed a letter calling on Manson – whose clients include former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil – to take action.
“Sending the letter to Manson Guitar Works was the extra pressure we needed. And after it hit the press, we went into negotiations and Cort came to an agreement with the workers,” explained KMWU international executive director, Hyewon Chong.
Unite international officer Ben Richards, who wrote the letter and organised its co-signing by the MU and IFM, said the guitar workers’ victory “shows that international solidarity really does work”.
“Sometimes it seems impossible to know how we can support workers going through such a traumatic situation on the other side of the world,” said Richards.
“But this shows us that small things – using our contacts within the TUC to make the Musicians Union aware of a situation they may never have heard of, putting our name to a letter of solidarity, showing the Korean workers that they were not alone in their fight for a union – has been able to have a big effect.”
Unite assistant general secretary for international Tony Burke said it was a fantastic victory for the long-suffering guitar workers and wished them well on their future endeavours.
“Unite was the first union the KMWU turned to for help. We work closely with unions abroad both individually and through Workers Uniting and Unite is well respected across the globe as a union that can be depended on to go the extra mile for our brothers and sisters wherever they may be,” Burke added.
“Had the letter not helped to settle this dispute, Unite and Workers Uniting would have been happy to continue campaigning on this issue and raising awareness through the music press. As a well loved brand, and with so many high profile musicians connected to it, the treatment of the guitar workers by its business partner could well have caused reputational damage to Manson – a situation that has to the benefit of everyone now been avoided.”