Disruption expected as 50,000 health care workers to go on nationwide strike

Surgeries have been canceled and patients discharged at some hospitals ahead of strike set for the first time in 19 years.

Lee Jaeeun

Lee Jaeeun

The Korea Herald


Members of the Korea Health and Medical Workers' Union hold a press conference at the union's office in Seoul's Yeongdeungpo District, Monday. (Yonhap)

July 13, 2023

SEOUL – The Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU), a group of nurses, health care workers and caregivers, announced Wednesday that its members will stage a two-day general strike starting Thursday, calling on the Korean government to hire more medical personnel and improve their working conditions. The strike is the union’s first in 19 years after its members walked out in 2004 calling for a five-day workweek.

Around 50,000 out of a total of 85,000 KHMU members will participate in the two-day sit-in protest to condemn the government’s unkept promises to reduce the number of patients per nurse; expand public health services and infrastructure; and improve the working conditions of health care workers, the KHMU said.

However, essential personnel in charge of tasks directly related to patients’ lives such as emergency rooms, operating rooms, intensive care units, delivery rooms and neonatal rooms have decided not to participate in the strike, the union added.

“The government did not provide any support to settle critical issues, while delaying the schedule for improving various systems,” it said, referring to a 2021 agreement made between the union and the government, then led by former liberal-leaning President Moon Jae-in.

Among the 83 percent of members who voted, 92 percent agreed to stage a strike, the union said, explaining the reasoning for taking the collective actions.

Nurses and health care workers from 29 private university hospitals, 12 national university hospitals, 12 public hospitals, 26 Korean Red Cross hospitals, and 26 local medical centers across the country will take part in the strike. The list includes around 20 high-level general hospitals such as Kyunghee University Hospital, Korea University Anam Hospital, Korea University Guro Hospital, Ewha Womans University Mokdong Hospital and Hanyang University Seoul Hospital.

The KHMU will join forces with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the more militant of the nation’s two largest umbrella labor organizations, on Thursday and Friday. It will also carry out its own strike from next Monday. The KCTU has been staging a two-week national strike since July 3.

On Thursday, KHMU members will hold a massive rally in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. On Friday, they will gather in the metropolitan cities of Seoul, Busan, Gwangju and Sejong.

If the strike proceeds without reaching an amicable agreement with the government, it will likely cause significant disruption to medical services over the coming days. Disruptions have already occurred at the National Cancer Center and Pusan National University Hospital, with surgeries being canceled and patients being discharged.

Currently, specific strike plans have been made for only two days, but the KHMU warned of an indefinite strike if its demands are not met.

“If our demands are not resolved and the government does not change its irresponsible attitude, we will go on an indefinite general strike. The number of members participating in the strike could increase afterward,” the KHMU said.

To minimize confusion in the medical field caused by the strike, the Ministry of Health and Welfare formed a team headed by Second Vice Minister Park Min-soo on June 28 to monitor the situation. Also, Park met with heads of high-level general hospitals on Wednesday afternoon to hold an emergency inspection meeting in Seoul. The ministry is assessing the situation of medical sites through cooperation with local governments and discussing emergency medical treatment measures, such as establishing a cooperative system with related agencies, ministry officials said.

“The KHMU should not participate in the strike while ignoring the lives and health of the people. I hope the members should withdraw the strike plan and remain with patients at medical sites,” said Health Minister Cho Kyu-hong on Monday.

In September 2021, when the KHMU announced a strike, the Healthy Ministry reached an agreement after consulting with the union and avoided a walkout.

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