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2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea (Democratic People's Republic of)

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea (Democratic People's Republic of), 20 November 2008, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 23,800,000
Capital: Pyongyang
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: Not a member state

There was no change in the total lack of respect for trade union rights in one of the world's most authoritarian nations, where the only trade union body allowed exists to support the ruling party.

Trade union rights in law

Freedom of association in Constitution and law: Article 67 of the Constitution of North Korea provides that "citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association."

Furthermore, article 21 of North Korea's Foreign Enterprise Law states: "Employees working for foreign enterprises can form trade unions. Trade unions protect the rights and interests of the employees under the Republic's labour law and conclude a contract concerning working conditions with [a] foreign enterprise and supervise their implementation. Foreign enterprises must guarantee conditions for trade union activities."

However, the same law contains no provisions to protect workers from employer retaliation against those who might exercise the right to form a union, nor does it penalise employers who interfere in union matters. The law also fails to provide any basis to guarantee the right to collective bargaining.

Special labour law for Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC): The Kaesong Industrial Complex (located close to the de-militarised zone in between South and North Korea) was opened in June 2004 under a contract with Hyundai Asan Corporation and state-owned Korea Land Corporation of the Republic of Korea. A special law was drafted by the North Korean government, in consultation with the Hyundai Asan Corporation, and passed by the Supreme People's Assembly. There are no provisions in the law that guarantee freedom of association or the right to collectively bargain, and no protection in law for workers who raise complaints.

Repressive system of labour control: Article 30 of the Constitution says that "the State shall organise labour effectively, strengthen labour rules and fully utilise labour's working hours". Furthermore, Article 83 of the Constitution stipulates that all citizens of working age must work in full compliance with work discipline and working hours. The penal code provides for the death penalty for any individual who hinders the nation's industry, trade or the transport system, by purposely failing to fulfil a specific duty "even though he or she claims to be working normally". The penal code also states that anyone failing to carry out an assigned task properly shall be subject to at least five years in prison.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

No protection for workers in law or practice: In reality, there is no freedom of association in Korea. Independent trade unions are prohibited. The only authorised trade union organisation, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, is controlled by the single party, the Korean Workers' Party (KWP). It operates according to the old "Stalinist" model of trade unions, with responsibility for mobilising workers to meet production targets and providing health, education, culture and welfare services.

In April 2005, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on North Korea in which it condemned " ... all pervasive and severe restrictions ... on peaceful assembly and association ... ", and urged the government to address these human rights problems by, among other things, " ... adhering to internationally recognised labour standards ... ".

In a periodic report submitted in May 2000 to the UN Human Rights Committee the government stated that "If a public organisation or a trade union seriously endangers the State security or healthy public order, the organisation and activity is forbidden."

No collective bargaining: The government controls the most basic aspects of employer-worker relations. Workers do not have the right to bargain collectively. Government ministries set wages.

The state assigns all jobs. Joint ventures and foreign-owned companies have to hire their employees from lists of workers vetted for their "ideological purity" and drawn up by the KWP.

Kaesong Industrial Zone – government control, no unions: Surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers, North Korean workers are tightly controlled and under constant surveillance by the authorities. Human Rights Watch reported the South Korean Ministry of Unification has stated there are no trade unions present in the Zone. The North Korean Government selects worker representatives in Zone workplaces, subject to the approval of the South Korean company management.

Recruitment of workers to work in the Zone is controlled by the North Korean government. While article 32 of the KIC Labour Law states that workers should paid directly, in cash, in practice this does not happen. Since the Zone was opened, the North Korean government has demanded that all salaries be paid to the government and Zone employers have acceded to this requirement. After making deductions for a government controlled fund, the North Korean government pays the workers their salary.

Repeated requests in 2005 by South Korean managers of 11 factories, employing over 6,000 workers, to be allowed to pay wages directly to the workers have been refused. The continued use of this indirect payment system violates an agreement on the operation of the Zone made between the governments of North Korea and South Korea.

Forced labour: The UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, and numerous government and NGO sources, found that the North Korean government consistently used forced labour. This is arguably the antithesis of workers being freely able to associate. The government also sends workers abroad, to countries including Bulgaria, China, Kuwait, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Russia and Yemen. Pyongyang keeps a tight rein on them, and takes most of their wages. Extensive evidence from the Czech Republic, for example, shows that workers have to pay most of their wages into a central bank account, they have no freedom of speech and are accompanied by an Embassy guard, who acts as an interpreter. Their situation has been described by a former North Korean embassy official as slave labour.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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