The Korean Health and Medical Union (KHMU) will organise a series of campaigns this year to defend the right to quality public healthcare and for workers’ rights in the sector. At its 21st anniversary ceremony and regular congress which took place on 27-28 February, the union decided to include all-out mobilisation against the expansion of for-profit hospitals and against precarious work.
In its mobilisation to stop the expansion of for-profit hospitals, KHMU intensified its struggle at the end of 2018. In Jeju Province, the provincial government had given permission for the construction of a for-profit hospital, the Jeju Greenland International Hospital. KHMU immediately set up a Taskforce Team against the hospital and held a ‘Candlelight Cultural Performance against For-Profit Hospital in Jeju’ on 15 December. The union also initiated a signature campaign against licensing Jeju Greenland International Hospital.
On 3 January 2019, a mass rally was held at the Jeju Provincial Government Building which urged Governor Won Hee-ryong of the Jeju province to retract approval for the for-profit hospital and step down as governor for putting profit over the welfare and well-being of people. The demonstration included 280 union leaders from across the country and over 500 rank and file workers and civil society activists.
KHMU President Na Sun-ja said the union is “committed to preventing even a single for-profit hospital from opening”. She added that protest against licensing of Greenland International Hospital “has since spread out nationwide, showing the reserved strength of the KHMU”.
Health workers in Korea have fought against privatization of health since 2014, when KHMU led three general strikes and collected around two million signatures in collaboration with civil society allies. The central government still went ahead to amend the medical service law, allowing for-profit hospitals to be established. But KHMU won a partial victory, with the amended law allowing such private hospitals to be run only in free economic zones like the Jeju province.
Public hospitals represent only 10% of the entire medical institutions in the country. South Koreans want more public health coverage and not more for-profit health services, as demonstrated in Jeju. Governor Won organised a public opinion survey between March and October 2018 after the loud outcry against any attempt to grant an operating license to Greenland Jeju Healthcare Town Ltd.
The poll showed 58.9% of residents were against the for-profit venture in health. But Governor Won still issued the license, permitting the for-profit hospital to be built on 5 December. Now, the union demands withdrawal of the plan and license for Greenland International Medical Centre and for it to become a public hospital.
KHMU is committed to blocking the opening of more for-profit hospitals and for strengthening the public nature of medical services. This also requires improved staffing levels and decent work in public health facilities. Thus, the union is equally campaigning for enactment of a new Medical Personnel Law. It also wants to kick out precarious work, unpaid labour and all forms of violence (verbal or behavioural) at the workplace.
KHMU is not alone in this fight. According to President Na, the union works closely with the civil society movement taking the struggle “beyond Jeju to Seoul and to every corner of the nation”. The action against marketisation and commodification of health is a democratic one. Unions must forge alliances with the civil society movement and communities. It is a struggle for a better future for all, with universal access to quality public healthcare.
Realisation of the right to health requires our unity and determination, as the KHMU shows. With these, victory is assured.