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2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea, Republic of

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea, Republic of, 9 June 2010, available at: [accessed 19 February 2018]
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: 48,300,000
Capital: Seoul
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 100 – 111 – 138 – 182

Police violence against strikers continued, resulting in serious injuries in several cases along with mass detentions. Freedom of association is seriously restricted while the principal of voluntary collective bargaining essential to the respect for collective bargaining is almost totally ignored. Since the election of the conservative government in early 2008, the Korean trade union movement has noted increasing repression of their activities and worsening treatment of its members.

Trade union rights in law

While basic trade union rights are guaranteed in the Constitution, many excessive restrictions apply. Numerous categories of public officials, as well as personnel dealing with trade unions or industrial relations, are denied union rights. Dismissed workers are also prohibited from keeping their union membership, and non-members of unions are not eligible for trade union office. Despite promises of reform, multiple unions are not allowed at the enterprise level. Furthermore, public sector unionists are prohibited from engaging in "acts in contravention of their duties" when conducting union activities – a provision that is open to abuse – and may not be involved in any sort of "political activities". Article 314 of the Criminal Code bars "obstruction of business", and enables employers to counteract union activities.

While the right to collective bargaining is secured, the procedures for involving third parties in negotiations are cumbersome. Bargaining in the public sector is also limited, and laws and budgets prevail over any collective agreement. The Minister of Labour has extensive powers to declare a situation of "Emergency Arbitration" in disputes relating to public services, which compels the union to enter mediation and, if mediation fails, binding arbitration. In addition, all lawful strikes must be related to labour conditions, and all forms of industrial action is prohibited in the public sector. The list of "essential services" exceeds the ILO definition.

In the second half of the year, tripartite discussions were held on the revision of the Trade Union and Labor Relation Adjustment Act (TULRAA). Main discussion focused on the status of full-time union officials, union pluralism as well as precarious workers' and public workers' rights. Mid-December, a debate started at the National Assembly on the revised Bill. Amongst other issues, with the revision of the TULRAA, the enforcement of Union Pluralism is delayed for one and a half year. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) strongly criticised the proposed revised Bill.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: The arrival of a conservative government led to a chilling of relations

with the trade union movement. Violations of trade union rights appear to

be on the increase while the economic crisis has intensified conflicts in

industrial relations as enterprises seek short term policies of mass

dismissals and unilateral cuts to wages and working conditions.

Worsening repression of union organising: A February 2009 fact-finding mission of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Global Union Federation representatives and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) of the OECD found supporting evidence that precarious workers in Korea continue to be denied the most basic rights, specifically rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining and collective action. The mission also concluded that the trade union rights situation is deteriorating, and that the government has failed to implement recommendations made by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to bring its laws into conformity with core ILO standards, including the use of Korea's unique "obstruction of business" clause (section 314 of the penal code) to severely limit legitimate trade union activity.

Repression of migrants union and crackdown on illegal migrants: Migrant workers are subject to serious abuses of labour rights. While the laws offer them similar protection to local workers in terms of wages and basic conditions, in reality most are paid far less than their Korean counterparts and forced to work long hours. The government continues to refuse to register the Migrants' Trade Union (MTU), and would not let it engage in trade union representation or bargaining. The MTU was founded in April 2005 and is a member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

A month long government initiative against undocumented migrants took place in October and November as part of a new plan to reduce the number by 90% by 2012. Methods used during the crackdown have been widely criticized as being inhumane and barbaric: houses and factories were entered with force and without warrants, and injuries were common. There are an estimated 190,000 undocumented migrant workers in South Korea. A recent Amnesty International report also noted the problem facing female migrant workers who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation and later risk being classed as illegal if they try to leave their employer.

Demonstrators kept out of harms way: Under the Law on Assembly and Demonstration, any gathering is banned within a hundred metres of foreign diplomatic missions. As a result, many large companies, such as Samsung, have invited embassies to rent offices in their buildings. This tactic effectively prevents workers from demonstrating in front of the company's headquarters.

Casualisation: Korea already has very high levels (more than 50%) of labour casualisation but according to unions, recent initiatives to privatise and merge public utilities is leading to increases in this figure, a rapid rise in laid off public employees, increased job instability and lowered working conditions for those remaining in employment with the additional goal of weakening the trade union movement.

"Illegal" strikes and police violence: Collective action often becomes "illegal", even when it is not in essential services, given the complicated legal procedures for organising a strike. The government continued to repress such action severely, including the imprisonment of hundreds of trade unionists. In the majority of cases, the principal charge was "obstruction of business". Unionists striking "illegally" often receive a one-year prison sentence or heavy fines. Imprisoned trade unionists are generally isolated from one another in order to prevent them from taking collective action while in jail.

The authorities use the violence that takes place in some demonstrations and strikes to justify the detention of trade union leaders however unions insist police action is unnecessarily provocative and disproportionately brutal. Prosecutors are quick to issue arrest warrants as soon as workers go on strike, or sometimes the moment a strike is announced. Police or security agencies mount surveillance operations, some of a sophisticated nature, in order to capture the strike leaders. This surveillance is sometimes carried out on members of the trade unionists' families. Unions' offices and telecommunications are routinely monitored.

"Paper unions": In a context where trade union pluralism is prohibited by law at the plant level, many employers have resorted to creating management-controlled unions, known as "paper unions". As they are impossible to democratise from within, owing to management's hostility, and since the law forbids the organisation of alternative unions, workers are left with few, if any, rights and cannot engage in genuine collective bargaining. The continued ban on union pluralism at the plant level reinforces the negative impact of these "paper unions" in denying workers their collective bargaining rights.

Last member of the Pohang Local Union Released: After serving two years and six months in jail, on 18 January, Lee Ji Kyung, former President of the Pohang Construction Plant Workers Union in South Korea, became the last of 56 members of the union to be released from prison. President Lee led and coordinated the General Strike which took place from July 1 to September 26, 2006. During the strike the union engaged in several industrial actions, the most public was the nine days long sit-down demonstration conducted by 3,000 union members at POSCO headquarters in Pohang at which one union member – Ha Joong Keun – was killed and 56 convicted.

Ssangyong motor workers arrested and protests stormed: On 16 and 20 July and again on 2 August, thousands of armed riot police used water cannons, trucks and helicopters to storm Ssangyong Motors Pyeongtaek plant where some 800 laid off workers and members of the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU) had been holding a sit-in strike for over two months. The dispute arose after the company announced mass dismissals of around 3,000 workers without notice or union input. On July 16, riot police used force to block basic supplies to the strikers. A total of 82 workers were detained for two days while company managers reportedly visited their homes, threatening family members with the imprisonment of their spouses and confiscation of their homes to pay the company damages. The wife of one unionist committed suicide reportedly as a result of receiving arrest warrants for her husband while two ex-workers also committed suicide. An agreement was finally reached on 13 August, but police interrogated and detained some 100 workers who were taken to prisons without the proper medical care. The agreement included limits on the number of workers dismissed, but negotiations continued over protection for strikers.

As of 28 October 2009, some 80 people were being investigated and under trial, including two KMWU vice presidents. There were some 64 union leaders, members and supporters imprisoned awaiting trial with a further 31 KMWU members released after conviction or initial hearing, making it the largest mass arrest of people on public security charges in 12 years. Ssangyong management also disciplined some 144 union members who participated in this strike and sued KMWU Ssangyong branch for KRW 5 billion (USD 4.3 million) and the national KMWU and other unions for a further 5 billion. Local police filed a suit against the KMWU and the KCTU for KRW 2 billion (USD 1.7 million) to cover medical costs for injured police and damage to police property. At least one mid-ranking official with the Ssangyong Motor union was sentenced to one and a half years and convicted of incurring KRW 2.29 billion of damages and destroying 10 million worth of office furniture. Another official was sentenced to a one year term suspended for two years on similar charges.

Civil Servant union leaders dismissed after attending rally: Fourteen leading members of the (then) three civil servant unions were dismissed and 37 other employees received demotions, suspensions, reprimands or pay cuts for participating in rallies in July. A total of 105 union members were referred to disciplinary committee for their participation. The rally was organised by opposition parties and activists over government plans to revise media laws and over various development plans.

Workers locked out after two day strike: On 11 August, Kumho Tires, the second largest tire manufacturer, imposed lockouts and barred workers access to three of its plants nationwide in response to strikes against the company's downsizing plan. The unionists started the strike on 9 August over plans to dismiss over 18% of the workforce. They complained that they had agreed to wage freezes and an effective wage cut two years ago whereas the company insisted on further cuts. The unionists and management started a 20th session of negotiations, but failed to reach an agreement.

Government interference in union affairs: In September, the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU) merged with two smaller unions, the Korean Democratic Government Employees Union and the Korean Court Workers Union, after direct ballots in the three unions. The government was not satisfied with neither the merger nor the decision of the newly merged union to affiliate with the Korean Trade Union Congress (KTUC). The Ministry of Public Administration and Security, the National Intelligence Service (MOPAS) and other groups attempted to stop the voting through directives banning all union activity during working hours in the days surrounding the ballot. MOPAS stated that it planned to severely discipline civil servants who 'illegally' took part in the vote and file complaints with the police and prosecutors.

As well, it threatened to punish civil servants en masse if public sector unions joined KCTU collective actions under the Civil Service Law. An emergency ministerial meeting publicly stated that the government would not permit unionists to use work time to carry out activities related to the vote and that the KCTU was engaged in a political activity and hence joining the union would be seen as a political and hence illegal act. To note, the Korean Government Employees' Union (KGEU) has faced restrictions on its activities since it started.

Public sector workers threatened – collective bargaining agreement ignored: Mass rallies were held in October and November denouncing the government's repression of the public sector. In particular, the unilateral cancellation of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the Korean Railway Workers' Union as the union prepared for a strike against restructuring on 26 November. This was the first time a CBA has been cancelled in 60 years. After the strike, Korail management announced its plan to sue the union and its leaders for compensation, insisting that the strike incurred USD7.8 million in damages. The authorities declared the strike unlawful whereas labour experts and the unions insisted it respected the law.

Three affiliates of the Korean Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers' Unions (KPTU), the Korean Railway Workers' Union (KRWU), the Korean Public & Social Service Workers' Union (KPSU)-KoGas Branch, and the Korean Powerplant Workers Union organised a joint response to the government action and other measures promoting privatisation and in non-compliance with current laws on trade union rights.

More KGEU officials dismissed and charged: On 1 December, police raided the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU) in Seoul, and the two offices of Korean Railway Workers Union (KRWU). Warrants were issued for the arrest of Kim Ki-tae, president of KRWU, and 15 other leaders of the union. Meanwhile, some 884 union members have been dismissed. In other unions, some 197 union leaders have been charged with "obstruction of business", the catch all clause which allows the authorities to criminalise basic union activities.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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