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Thousands of South Koreans mourn tragic death of coal worker

Thousands of South Koreans mourn tragic death of coal worker

Some 2,500 South Koreans marched through Seoul Saturday 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.

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 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Seoul.

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

Labour activists say if Kim had not been working unaccompanied, another person could have saved Kim’s life by turning off the conveyor belt. Kim was the ninth subcontracted worker to have died from work-related injuries at the Chungnam plant in Taean since 2010.

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

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

Street protests following 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”. Kim’s father, Kim Hae-gi, sobbed as he hugged the coffin.

“I hope you get to be born again,” said Park Seok-woon, the chair Korea Alliance for Progressive Movement, a local NGO, at the ceremony.

“I hope you get to live in a world where life is valued more than anything else”.

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, subcontracted worker was killed by a train while repairing platform screen doors at Seoul’s Guui subway station, aged 19.

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

As of 2017, 51 percent of all Koreans aged 15-24 were working in part-time or contract positions, according to a study by Korea Labor Institute.

Kim’s mother sobbed as she read out a letter to her son at the ceremony.

“I don’t know how to live now that you are gone,” she said. “I will always love you.”

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