Korean hunger striker targets Tetra Pak

A leafy Swiss park is the unlikely setting for a showdown between a South Korean hunger striker and a global corporation he accuses of "gangster" tactics in shutting down a factory.

Chung Janghun, a 41-year-old union official, has been on hunger strike for just over a month in a park in the western city of Lausanne, close to where the processing and packaging company Tetra Pak has its international headquarters.

Tetra Pak was founded in Sweden in 1953 and is famed for its innovative milk and drinks packaging. The Swedish company’s registered international headquarters are in Pully, a Lausanne suburb, for tax purposes.

Chung and his comrades from the Korean Chemical and Textile Workers Federation are protesting against Tetra Pak’s proposals to close the Yoju plant in South Korea and cut 108 jobs.

“It’s very hard, but what keeps me going is the struggle against Tetra Pak,” Chung told AFP in an interview.

Since September 26th, he has survived on just water and mineral salts.

Chung also has a twice-weekly check-up at Lausanne’s University Hospital and must heed doctors’ advice — one of the conditions imposed by the Swiss city’s authorities when allowing his protest.

Tetra Pak announced last March it was shutting the Yoju factory, saying its operations were commercially unsustainable.

However, Chung claimed the factory “had never been in the red,” and said the decision to close it down was politically motivated.

All but three of the 76 workers on the factory floor were union members, he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Looking frail but determined in his tent in Lausanne’s Parc de Milan, Chung said his aim was to highlight the “immoral and inhumane” methods of Tetra Pak, including hiring what he called “half-gangster” security firms to intimidate union officials.

Tetra Pak also bombarded workers and their families with text messages in a bid to get them to accept a voluntary redundancy package, he added.

Tetra Pak said in a statement that it had offered employees “a significantly more generous redundancy package than required under South Korean employment law.”

The two sides have held three meetings since the Korean delegation has been in Europe — one in Sweden and two in Switzerland.

The unions alleged these amounted to a “monologue, not a dialogue.”

Tetra Pak said it wants to continue a dialogue, and “hope(s) that the South Korean Union delegation will soon refocus their campaign onto their health, well being and future.”

Switzerland’s economy minister Doris Leuthard has rejected calls to become involved in the dispute. Her ministry says that under international directives laid down by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the matter must be settled in South Korea.

Chung Janghun insists the dispute has implications for workers worldwide and not just in his home country.

“I want to make it an international issue to correct the immoral attitudes of multinationals,” he said.

He said he had received a “very good impression” of Switzerland during his protest, and that local people had come to the park to voice their support and provide blankets and food to his companions.

The union official said he was grateful to the Lausanne authorities for allowing his protest and admitted he would face an ethical dilemma if doctors advise him to stop his strike on health grounds.

“I am resolute to go to the very end,” he said — but on the other hand, “unlike Tetra Pak, I won’t break my promises,” Chung added.