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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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