The auto industry saw a largely strong year in 2011 with U.S. sales rising 10 percent, but a recent incident at a Hyundai plant in South Korea may raise concerns over the cost of such gains.
Hyundai Motor worker Shin Sung-hun is in critical condition after lighting himself on fire last Sunday at an engine plant in Ulsan, South Korea, Reuters reported earlier this week. The Hyundai workers union, which told workers to refuse to work overtime after the episode, said Shin was protesting management's attempt to "unfairly control" him after he reported quality issues with the engines being produced at the plant.
Labornotes has since reported that before Shin doused himself with paint thinner and lit himself on fire at the plant, he made repeated requests that management slow down production speed. The Hyundai workers union helps employees count among the highest-paid blue collar workers in South Korea, according to Labornotes, but they also work 2,657 hours per year on average -- 600 times more than most assembly line workers.
This isn't the only instance of factory employees harming themselves to protest working conditions. Last year, 14 employees at Foxconn, a supplier for electronic companies including Apple, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, committed suicide by leaping from the roof of a factory in Shenzen. And earlier this month, up to 300 Foxconn employees threatened a mass suicide in protest of low compensation that company officials often withhold.
The episode was resolved peacefully but it's one of many that have made Foxconn the subject of increased scrutiny and media exposure. The work conditions at Foxconn were featured this week in a Daily Show with Jon Stewart segment and on the radio program This American Life, where performer Mike Daisey provided new accounts of child labor at the Shenzen plant which produces Apple iPhones and iPads.
Self-immolation, or the act of setting oneself on fire, is an extreme method of protest dating back to ancient India that activists has been used to protest unfair labor practices. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, set himself on fire after municipal officials raided his business and publicly humiliated him. The incident was one of the main catalysts for the Arab Spring and continues to inspire others to similar acts. Just days after Shin's self-torching, five Moroccan university graduates lit themselves on fire Thursday in protest of the country's high youth unemployment rate.
Workers stateside are also protesting work-related issues, albeit through less extreme measures. This week demonstrators gathered outside the National Retail Federation convention in New York to protest low pay and poor benefits, chanting "What do we need? Good Jobs!".