Published: 20/10/2010

When Korea joined the OECD in 1996, a condition of adherence was a commitment to reform its industrial relations legislation in line with ILO standards. Not only has there been no reform, but the situation has markedly deteriorated.

In the runup to the G20* meeting scheduled for November 11-12 in Seoul, South Korea, international union organizations are calling for pressure on the Korean government to bring its repressive labour law and employment regime into line with international standards and its own commitments.

The ILO has repeatedly called on the government of South Korea to amend its labour legislation, which criminalizes legitimate union activity, blocks large numbers of public sector workers from joining unions or bargaining collectively and promotes the massive use of precarious employment relationships to effectively deny workers their collective rights.

Despite its 1996 pledge, current and previous Korean governments has refused to ratify ILO Conventions 87 (freedom of association) and 98 (collective bargaining).

Article 314 of the Penal Code on “obstruction of business” is routinely used to arrest and imprison union leaders and members and impose fines totalling millions of dollars in order to cripple union activity. Over 300 trade unionists have been imprisoned over the past 18 months.

When the crisis affected production at Ssangyong Motors, management responded to union demands to negotiate worksharing by unilaterally dismissing agency workers. In the course of the strike which followed (May-August 2010), riot police consistently used violence against the workers, including using electroshock weapons.

A loose definition of “essential services” allows the government to deny large numbers of public sector workers the right to join a union. Unions of government employees, teachers, construction and transport workers are refused the right to represent over 250,000 workers.

Outsourced, subcontracted (dispatched) and other forms of precarious work have been aggressively promoted to deny whole categories of workers their right to union representation. Some 50% of all employed persons in Korea today lack an open-ended, direct permanent employment contract. The KCTU Korean metalworkrers have identified companies making use of up to a hundred labour contractors in a single factory – all to prevent workers from joining a union and bargaining with the real employer.

In an important decision last year, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association called on the government of Korea to stop the abusive use of precarious contracts to deny workers their rights.

The only labour law reform, however, is proposed legislation to extend the current two-year period after which dispatch workers must be made permanent – to 4 years! Sungjong Lee, Policy Director of the IUF-affiliated Korean Federation of Private Service Workers’ Unions (KFSU), denounces the proposed legislation because it will be used by employers to evade their obligation to regularize precarious workers: most employers, says Lee, will simply replace irregular workers as their contract conversion approaches with new, precarious hires.

Newly proposed legislation would also expand the range of job classifications allowed for dispatch (agency) work from the current 32 with up to 17 additional job classifications (in accordance with “market needs”). According to Nambee Park, President of the IUF-affiliated Korean Women’s Trade Union, this has already encouraged the conversion to agency work of many directly-employed women workers, with a consequent loss of security, wages and benefits. If the remaining restrictions on agency work are done away with, says Park, the result will be a further expansion of low wage work, deepening insecurity and gender discrimination

The global union federations, the ITUC and TUAC are together calling for pressure on G20 governments to make sure the urgent need for labour law reform comes to the fore at the G20 meeting.

But you needn’t live and work in a G20 country to take action in support of our Korean sisters and brothers! Unions everywhere can use these campaign materials to urge your government to pressure the government of Korea, to organize actions and protests at South Korean government representations and to inform your members and the wider public about the current situation – and the urgent need for change.


*The Group of 20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors is made up of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom and the USA.