South Koreans mourn coal worker's death

Some 2,500 South Koreans marching through Seoul to honour Mr Kim Yong-kyun, 24, who died last month after being sucked into a coal conveyor belt. He was working as a contractor at a power plant 110km south of Seoul.
Some 2,500 South Koreans marching through Seoul to honour Mr Kim Yong-kyun, 24, who died last month after being sucked into a coal conveyor belt. He was working as a contractor at a power plant 110km south of Seoul.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEOUL • Some 2,500 South Koreans marched through Seoul yesterday to honour a worker who was crushed to death at a coal plant, fuelling an outcry which led to a landmark amendment of the nation's industrial safety laws.

Mr Kim Yong-kyun, 24, died last month after being sucked into a coal conveyor belt.

He was working as a contractor at a power plant 110km south of Seoul.

His death triggered an uproar in South Korea, where critics say work safety is compromised for temporary or contract workers - despite being a wealthy, developed economy and the fourth biggest in Asia.

Activists say if Mr Kim had not been working unaccompanied, another person could have saved his life by turning off the conveyor belt.

Mr Kim was the ninth subcontracted worker to have died from work-related injuries at the Chungnam plant in Taean since 2010.

Mr Kim's mother, Mrs Kim Mi-sook, refused to hold a funeral until the government introduced protective measures for temporary workers, 60 per cent of whom are deprived of employment benefits including health insurance.

The funeral finally took place yesterday after the government offered to turn 2,200 temporary workers into full-time employees.

Street protests following Mr Kim's death led to the amendment of the Industrial Safety Act, which bans companies from subcontracting high-risk tasks such as those requiring the use of mercury.

Young temporary workers attended the funeral wearing headbands that read "I am Kim Yong-kyun". Mr Kim's father, Mr Kim Hae-gi, sobbed as he hugged the coffin.

Mr Park Seok-woon, chairman of the Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement, a local non-government organisation, said at the ceremony: "I hope you get to be born again. I hope you get to live in a world where life is valued more than anything else".

Mr Kim's mother sobbed as she read out a letter to her son: "I don't know how to live now that you are gone. I will always love you."

South Korea has one of the highest workplace fatality rates among developed countries.

According to labour ministry data, 1,957 South Koreans died of work-related injuries or diseases in 2017. Of 20 employees who died after being injured while working for the nation's five major power plants from 2014 to last year, all were subcontracted workers, according to a report by lawmaker Lim Lee-ja's office.

In 2016, an unaccompanied, 19-year-old subcontracted worker was killed by a train while repairing platform screen doors at Seoul's Guui subway station.

Mr Kim, a college graduate, spent more than six months trying to find a full-time position before taking the temporary job at the power plant.

As at 2017, 51 per cent of all Koreans aged 15 to 24 years were working in part-time or contract positions, according to a Korea Labour Institute study.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 10, 2019, with the headline 'S. Koreans mourn coal worker's death'. Print Edition | Subscribe