Workers in the South Korean shipbuilding sector are stepping up their work and protesting against the shortage of skilled workers and the industry’s efforts to bring in a cheaper foreign workforce to cope with the current shortage of key skills. An umbrella association representing the workers of eight major shipbuilders announced today that it will take part in a strike against Hyundai Heavy Industries.
The protests began in late April in response to a government announcement that it would release visa requirements at the request of shipbuilders. They promised to raise the limit five times the historical level to a total of 4400 workers from lower-cost Southeast Asia countries, including Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. The new visas are specific to skilled workers in the shipbuilding industry, including welders, painters, etc. with important skills. The move comes after shipbuilders put pressure on the government to say they did not have enough skilled workers to keep up with order books and the influx of new orders. Each of the large shipyards reports that their order books will be full by 2024 with 37 more ships ordered in the first three months of 2022. shipbuilders.
Workers at three Hyundai shipyards, such as Samsung Heavy Industries, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, HSG Sungdong Shipbuilding, K Shipbuilding and HJ Shipbuilding & Construction, all supported the work. They have accused shipbuilders of creating the problem and are now damaging the long-term health of the industry and its jobs. The unions are demanding higher wages, improved working conditions and the hiring of workers who have been laid off in recent years. Unions say employment will fall from more than 200,000 in the middle of the decade to about 90,000 in 2021. Automation has offset some of the reductions, but many of the tasks it enforces require skilled workers. . Trade unions say the shipyards are laying off many workers and attracting young people to join the workforce.
In response to the shipyards’ movement to bring in more foreign workers, unions called what they believed increased the risk and potential of accidents through language and experience barriers. They have also long argued that South Korean shipyards followed a similar model of Japanese shipbuilders, which they said led to the collapse of Japanese industry.
South Korean industry argues that if it is to keep up with orders and adhere to delivery schedules, it needs to increase its workforce. They confirm that Japanese industry has collapsed due to high costs and labor shortages, such as competitive pressure from South Korea, similar to the problems currently facing South Korean fields. According to some estimates, the South Korean shipbuilding sector will need to add up to 25,000 workers to cover the current workload.
In the face of stiff competition from Chinese shipbuilders, South Korean industry is also trying to reduce costs to face competition and offset rising material costs. While the largest Korean shipbuilders all exceeded targets for 2021, they also all reported financial losses.
In addition to raising the visa quota, the government is also promising to support the industry by providing training for foreign workers to address issues such as a potential language barrier. The government’s longer-term strategy has been to shift the focus to higher-value new technologies such as autonomous shipping and alternative fuels to raise the value of the shipbuilding industry.