|Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong speaks at a briefing on the government’s plan for the medical workers’ strike at the National Assembly in Seoul on July 13, 2023./ Source: Yonhap|
AsiaToday reporters Cho Sung-joon
The Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union (KHMU), which consists of nurses, pharmacists, and other medical workers, launched a general strike on Thursday. It is the first collective action in 19 years since 2004 when they staged a nationwide strike against medical privatization. The union vowed to maintained essential medical services, such as emergency rooms and delivery rooms in order to minimize confusion. However, disruptions to medical services occurred at several hospitals as patients were sent home and surgeries were canceled. Calling the strike as “political strike,” the government raised the country’s healthcare disaster crisis level to “caution” from the lowest “attention,” and warned of firm measures, saying it would consider issuing back-to-work order if necessary.
The KHMU under the combative Confederation of Korean Trade Unions (KCTU) has declared to walk out of approximately 140 medical facilities nationwide. With an estimated 45,000 medical workers participating, some 20 large hospitals including Kyung Hee University Medical Center and Korea University Anam Hospital also joined the strike. However, the so-called “big 5” hospitals in Seoul, including Samsung Medical Center and Asan Medical Center, were all excluded.
The KHMU has demanded an expansion of the comprehensive state system for nursing and caregiving, an increase in personnel, clarification of duties by profession and eradication of illegal medical practices. It warned of an indefinite strike if the government does not change its “irresponsible attitude.”
In response, Minister of Health and Welfare Cho Kyoo-hong held a meeting with the ruling People Power Party (PPP) lawmakers to discuss measures to minimize the disruption of medical services. “If the strike extends beyond the boundaries of a lawful action and poses a significant risk to people’s lives and health, we will respond firmly in accordance with the law and principles,” the minister said in a briefing. On the same day, 2nd Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Park Min-soo appeared on a cable channel specialized in reporting, saying, “We will even consider issuing return-to-work order if necessary.”