||Issue No. 124||15 February 2002|
Chickens Come Home
Unions: Winning the Heartland
Interview: Swan's Song
Corporate: Lessons from Enron
Politics: What We Did Last Summer
History: Solidarity in Song
International: A Tale of Two Cities
Poetry: Nobody Told Me
Review: Labor and the Rings
Satire: Rafter Named Bermudan Of The Year For Tax Purposes
The Locker Room
Week in Review
'International Labour's Year in Review' - A Re-View
Collins Gets Cryptic
The Locker Room
Off-side in Korea?
By Jasper Goss
The great Caribbean Trotskyist writer CLR James in Beyond a Boundary (written in the early 1960s) established the inseparable nature of sport and politics. James demonstrated, by examining the social role of cricket in the West Indies, how the initial struggles to indigenise West Indian cricket fed into anti-colonial struggles and ultimately into successful independence from the British Empire.
Since Beyond a Boundary many sporting events have frequently, overly and covertly, highlighted political conflicts. To name a few: the Olympics throughout the Cold War as battles between the US and the USSR; any sporting event with South Africa during the racist era of apartheid; and, the struggle for African-American civil rights exemplified in the career of Muhammad Ali. We cannot think of such sporting moments without the association of politics.
In fact it is difficult not to see politics in any major sporting event, let alone the largest and most popular: the World Cup.
This year's World Cup is jointly hosted by Japan and Korea (South). Everyone understands that soccer is huge business - revenues from advertising, merchandising and broadcast rights will no doubt equal the annual income of some medium-sized countries.
Let us review what we know about one of the countries hosting the World Cup.
We know that South Korea, after having recovered from a devastating war 50 years ago, is now the 13th richest country in the world and has produced global manufacturing and industrial conglomerates. Yet, despite this wealth South Korea's citizens only gained the right to vote for their president in 1987.
In fact for much of the last half of the Twentieth Century Korea was ruled by a succession of brutal dictatorships. What was of profound importance in bringing down the dictatorships were the struggles of democratic labour movements whose activities were criminalised by the state.
Organising a union not controlled by the government led to gaol. Initiating industrial activity outside the confines of government-approved unions led to gaol.
Just last year, over 600 trade unionists were arrested for undertaking basic trade union work. The leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) Dan Byong Ho sits in a Seoul gaol under a two and a half year sentence for having organised protests against the IMF restructuring packages adopted by the Korean government.
What has any of this to do with the World Cup?
The South Korean government hopes people see no connection between the sporting conditions on the pitch and the social conditions in the country. The government wants Korea to be seen as a 'happy' place, which is efficient and good for business.
Which means there can be no strikes or industrial activity.
Which means trade union activists who highlight the denial of fundamental rights have to be silenced or marginalised.
Which means workers cannot draw attention to the exploitative conditions under which they labour.
Which means the focus of the World Cup must be football, not the casual worker in the hotel being paid a pittance as she makes the bed of a visiting tourist and denied the right of joining a union of her own choice.
Which means the focus of the World Cup must be the latest fashion accessory disguised as a football boot, not the unemployed trade unionist fired for trying to get better wages.
So when the football lands in the goal net and the camera pans across cheering (or disappointed) faces this June it is important to remember what the World Cup represents. For some it will be about national prowess and redemption.
But for the Korean government the World Cup will be used to demonstrate the country's modernity and embrace of the world. Yet, the government has been very selective in this embrace. Fundamental rights for workers remain missing in Korea's drive for modernity and attempting to ignore this absence in the commercial euphoria of the World Cup will only leave a bitter legacy.
Jasper Goss is information and research officer with the Asia and Pacific Regional Secretariat of the International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations.
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