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Do you know who made your guitar?

Abandoned Cor-tek factory: Photo by Noh Suntag.

Leslie Eme — Intern, International Labor Rights Forum — writes about labour rights abuses by a South Korean company that controls 30% of the global guitar market.

Most musicians and music lovers around the world know of guitar brands like Fender, Gibson, Alvarez, G&L, ESP and Ibenez. What they may not know is where these branded guitars are made and who makes them. Until a few years ago, many of these guitars were produced in South Korea by factory workers who toiled long hours to meet production deadlines, working in windowless rooms, inhaling harmful fumes and making less than the minimum wage.

These factories were run by a company called Cort, that currently controls 30% of the global guitar market. However, factories in South Korea were shut down in 2007, shortly after workers unionised in hopes of receiving at least the minimum wage, joining forces with the Korean Metal Workers Union.

Cort claimed economic hardship as the reason for this closure. However, according to the Cort Action Network weblog, the CEO of Cort has become a billionaire, one of the richest men in South Korea and the 125TH richest man in the world. With $78 billion in profit, Cort’s claim of bankruptcy and financial hardship to justify the mass firing of all of it’s Korean employees sounds all the more dubious.

As the Cort Action Network describes: “After dedicating decades of their labour in unventilated rooms full of fumes and solvent; enduring forced overtime and below-minimum wage pay; incurring injuries and lung diseases; and undergoing the abuse of their managers, these workers unionised to finally get minimum wage. Only a short time later, they found themselves padlocked out of their factory in Deajon and were forced to sign resignation papers. It turned out that Cort had moved its operations overseas, for much cheaper and non-unionised labour in Chinese and Indonesian factories.”

For the past three years, Korean guitar workers and their supporters have been protesting the closure of these factories which left 123 workers without a job. Workers are asking for these factories to be reopened under more just conditions. Even the Korean courts ruled in favour of the workers on this one. For many of these guitar workers, making guitars is not just a job – it is also their art. For some, it is what they have been doing their entire lives.

The workers are demanding that Cort reopen the factories in Korea and return jobs to the displaced workers. They need the support of musicians, artists, cultural producers, media makers and anyone who believes that guitars – and therefore music – should be made under fair and humane conditions. Workers have set up a weblog – cortaction.wordpress.com – where the public can hear their stories and find out about opportunities to support this cause.♦

Leslie Eme is Intern, International Labor Rights Forum. An earlier version of this article was published in the Labor is not a commodity blog.

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17 comments for “Do you know who made your guitar?”

  1. Wow. That’s just utterly ridiculous. I’ve heard of Cort before, even of their history, but I didn’t know it was THAT bad. That’s just totally out of control.

  2. Why doesn’t some enterprising person or company swoop in and snap up all those employees and open their own guitar company? When Beretta in Italy moved to automated CNC for the bulk of their shotgun production, a few ex-Beretta employees grabbed up all the old machinery and the laid off workers (though “artisans” is more appropriate way to describe them) and opened up in a neighboring village and now make Verona shotguns, just as good as the Beretta versions, but almost 1/2 the cost. Sounds like they are too busy being victims to see the wonderful opportunity they’ve been given!

  3. WHAT FACTORY MADE MY EPIPHONE

    I have inherited a Black Les Paul deluxe with what appear to be smaller than normal HUM-BUCKERS on it . the serial number is !98081346 I have multiple shots of this beautiful guitar.and am willing to send various shots to you if required,
    Yours Truly

    DON ASHTON

  4. “$78 billion in profit”? Really? Those are impressive numbers. I’d like to see the source of that figure. I’d actually be quite surprised at $78 billion in total sales….

    • He made all that money by paying workers 20 $ a week! Think how many guitars one worker can make in a year and the amount of money isn’t so unbelievable, also that’s his personal wealth not company profit

    • Very impressive numbers. Considering Fortune Magazine’s #1 most profitable company is Exxon Mobil. Their 2012 profit was- 44.9 billion! If they had 78 billion in sales, they would be in the top 100 biggest countries in the world. The fact that the story mentions 123 workers without a job kind of proves their numbers don’t add up. It’s amazing how little thought people put into a story like this.

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  11. But if you buy an american made guitar, you a buying from a country that was built on the backs of negro slaves and slaughtetered natives and was built on child labor working in the mines. Its a catch 22.

  12. Hi
    I’m mahima from Sri Lanka.
    I’m import some guitars from chaina ..
    I like to brought some acoustic steel guitars from your factory
    Pls can you send me acoustic guitar price list?

    Thank you
    I’m mahima fr Sri Lanka

  13. That’s to bad love my Cort,Ibanez and ESP/LTD

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