How one of the world's strongest car unions is dealing with EV job losses

  • The transition to electric vehicles in the global automobile industry is a major threat to the jobs of many employees in the domain.
The transition to electric vehicles in the global automobile industry is a major threat to the jobs of many employees in the domain. (AP)
The transition to electric vehicles in the global automobile industry is a major threat to the jobs of many employees in the domain.

The threat to jobs caused by the electric vehicle transition isn’t just a hot-button issue in the US, where a presidential election campaign is in full swing.

In Japan, the heads of Toyota Motor Corp., the country’s largest employer with close to 381,000 staff, are grappling with how the carmaker’s technological transformation will impact not only its workers but the nation’s vast auto supply chain and the thousands of jobs it supports.

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In South Korea, Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Corp.’s moves toward electrification are provoking similar anxieties in that country’s highly active and organized labour movement.

Hyperdrive sat down in Seoul last week with officials from the Korean Metal Workers’ Union, which represents roughly 180,000 auto workers, including about 70,000 at Hyundai and Kia, the country’s two dominant manufacturers.

The union, formed in 2001, is in the process of negotiating a new annual contract for Hyundai’s vehicle assembly workers and it’s threatened to strike over disagreements on future hiring plans and sharing the spoils of Hyundai’s record profits in 2023.

The conflict has clear echoes of the contentious six-week strike between the United Auto Workers union and the Detroit Three carmakers last fall.

Last week was also the week that at least 23 people, mostly migrant workers from China, died in a fire caused by explosions at a lithium battery plant south of Seoul. The fire, at a factory owned by Aricell, which makes products for industrial and military applications, was the worst accident at a battery plant in the country’s history. In response, the government has formed a task force to improve fire safety measures across the industry.

We asked union officials including policy secretary Kim Sang Min and executive director of international, Hyewon Chong, how they’re dealing with challenges like job losses due to electrification and automation, as well as safety risks as EV battery production expands. The conversation, which was both in Korean and English, has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you see the battery fire at the Aricell? Lithium-ion batteries are a key component of EVs, and those killed were mostly migrant workers hired by a third-party company.

We have to overhaul safety management systems in light of the incredible risks. If a company is going to bring in temporary, outsourced workers, they have to have a safety management system in place for these people.

Aricell is a subsidiary of S-Connect and there was an outsourced recruitment firm for the factory workers. This kind of system hinders workers from connecting with each other and helps employers control them more easily. We’re trying to respond to this trend.

Hyundai is pushing electrification, building EV plants in South Korea and the US, and a new heavily automated facility in Singapore. What does this mean for your members?

The visit to Hyundai’s plant in Singapore made us realize that it will be hard to keep our jobs. So we’re trying to demand that companies create new jobs related to green industries. It’s something we really think about deeply and study what kind of demands will really make a difference. We need to confess, we don’t have a magic bullet.

Dealing with this only at the factory level would be insufficient to address what’s going on in society. If we limit our sights to inside the factory walls, it looks like jobs are being reduced. On the other hand, there are also workers who are going to be building robots.

So what does that look like in practice?

We signed an agreement on industrial transformation with Korean metal industry employers in 2021. This year we’re focusing on supply chains, a plan called “just transition," where automakers are taking overall responsibility for realizing carbon neutrality in their supply chains.

We have to develop clusters and strategies for different regions for different sub-sectors. A consultation framework should be made so that the local community and the companies and the trade unions will be able to find strategies to realign their economic production on something that’s needed, something that will continue employment in a sustainable way.

South Korea’s working population is shrinking as post-war baby boomers retire, and companies are increasingly hiring migrant workers. How do you communicate with this new generation?

We publish newsletters in various languages to deliver information they need to know, such as how to calculate Korean base salaries. Removing discrimination against migrant workers is one of the three main issues we plan to negotiate with companies this year. We also try to help them standardize their labour agreements, as migrant workers sometimes need special clauses such as ways to improve their living conditions at accommodations.

And is Gen-Z interested in joining the union? In one of your newsletters, a union member said young people these days have “a weaker willingness for fighting" against management.

Gen-Zs and millennials still account for a very small portion of the population at metal workers’ unions and the average age of unionized workers is rising. So, it’s true that the demographic trend makes younger people raise their voices less than older generations do. There are views, which are a bit prejudiced, that younger generations don’t have much interest in labour disputes and they tend to focus on their own interests.

But we see some newly created unions by younger workers and they are showing actions that we didn’t see previously, such as scuffling with gatekeepers at plants. They’re trying to do something different from the older generation.

First Published Date: 01 Jul 2024, 07:36 AM IST

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