Population: 48,300,000
Capital: Seoul
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 100 – 111 – 138 – 182

Police violence and criminal sanctions against strikers continued, resulting in serious injuries and mass detentions. Since the 2008 election of the conservative government, the Korean trade union movement has noted increasing repression and worsening treatment of its members. Employers systematically engage workers on precarious employment contracts specifically to prevent them from forming and joining trade unions. Trade union rights are restricted in the public sector, and amendments to the labour laws in 2010 banned wage payments to full-time union officials.


While basic trade union rights are guaranteed, many excessive restrictions apply in the public sector. 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. Furthermore, public officials and teachers 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". The right to collective bargaining is also limited in the public sector as laws and budgets prevail over any collective agreement.

The right to strike is recognised, but strikes that are not directly related to labour conditions are easily considered illegal – article 314 of the Criminal Code bars "obstruction of business". Public officials and teachers are denied this right, and the list of "essential services" exceeds the ILO definition.

With the amendment of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Adjustment Act on 1 January 2010, wage payments to full-time union officials by employers were banned. A time-off system was instead established to prescribe the maximum number of union officials and hours for union activities for each workplace depending on its size. The amendment also brought positive change by allowing union pluralism at the enterprise level from July 2011; however, only a single bargaining channel is allowed.


Background: Tensions between North Korea and South Korea are the highest they have been for a long time due to crossborder clashes, bomb tests and the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March 2010, in which 46 sailors died. Violations of trade union rights appear to be on the increase. The economic downtown has intensified conflicts in industrial relations as enterprises seek short-term policies of mass dismissals and unilateral cuts to wages and working conditions.

"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.

OECD criticises Korean government interference in unions: In May a senior policy advisor of the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that the Korean government is interfering excessively with labour-management relations and that the policy of limiting wage payments to unionists did not conform to international standards. He also commented that the Korean time off system for union officials was introduced to weaken unions as was the fact that workers had to cover all union expenses unlike in other nations. The OECD was in South Korea to conduct an investigation into the deteriorating situation of labour rights and determine whether to include South Korea in its special monitoring.

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, forced to work long hours and often have their wages withheld. They are tied to their employer and face restrictions in changing jobs, making them particularly vulnerable.

As of October 2009, there were about 680,000 migrant workers in South Korea, mainly working in factories producing textiles and electronics, but also involved in prostitution. In September 2008, the government announced it would halve the estimated 220,000 illegal migrant workers by 2012 and has increased the sometimes violent deportation raids in workplaces and homes.

The Migrants' Trade Union (MTU) was founded in April 2005 and is a member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). However, the government has consistently refused to recognise it as a legal union and has not let it engage in trade union representation or collective bargaining, despite the fact that Korean law allows all workers to organise and that in 2006 the Seoul Higher Court recognised MTU as a legal union. The government has appealed this decision and has arrested and deported MTU leadership several times since 2005.

In November, a day after the close of the G20 summit, Michel Catuira, president of the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon Migrants' Trade Union, was summoned to appear before the Immigration Office for unlawful political activities.

Casualisation and restricted trade union rights: Korea already has very high levels (more than 50%) of labour casualisation, but according to unions, recent initiatives to privatise and merge public utilities are 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. Casual workers have restricted rights to organise.

In February 2010, estimates showed that more than five million workers, or one-third of the South Korean workforce, have already been made contract workers, receiving just 60% of the average wages of permanent workers. According to the Korean unions, the new "National Employment Strategy 2020", a government initiative to raise employment, includes provisions that will further deregulate private employment agencies, expand indirect employment, and increase precarious employment.

Unilateral cancellation of collective agreements: The current legislation allows for the unilateral cancellation of a collective bargaining agreement, a clause which is often used by employers. As of May 2010, 41 enterprises had unilaterally cancelled collective agreements.

HSBC bank workers denied the right to bargain collectively: HSBC bank workers and their union have been negotiating with HSBC Korea since June 2009, but management reportedly refused to continue to meet with the bank union since 7 January 2010 despite the national labour office calling the bank to compulsory meetings at the start of January.

Court rules in favour of arrested Ulsan Construction Plant workers: On 15 January 2010 a South Korean court ruled once again in favour of the Ulsan Construction Plant Union members who had peacefully participated in a protest in Seoul on 23 May 2005. At the time, over 700 union members took part in the protest to highlight an ongoing general strike the union had launched on 18 March 2005. Even though they had an official permit to conduct the protest, the police declared the demonstration to be illegal and arrested everyone present. The union members were eventually released after agreeing to pay fines. The court decision is final, and union members can now seek repayment of their fines – estimated to KRW 30,000,000 (EUR 19,700).

Civil servants union harassed and refused recognition: The newly organised union of civil servants, the Korean Government Employees' Union (KGEU), has been struggling for official recognition as the labour ministry has three times refused to recognise it because its membership reportedly contains dismissed public workers and non-civil servant staff. The union denies having dismissed workers as members and says staffers account for only eight of some 100,000 members. A lawsuit has been filed against government officials for abuse of authority.

In March 2010 a rally planned by the KGEU was termed an "illegal collective action". After the rally the Ministry of Public Administration and Security said that KGEU had violated the law by pushing though with a launching ceremony and that it (the Ministry) would fire 18 union leaders, including 13 headquarter heads including the KGEU Vice Chairman Park Yi-jae and Secretary General Ra Il-ha. The authorities also stated that they would punish all government employees who attended the rally after confirming their identities and ban all the union's activities including establishing an office, picketing and leafleting. It would also impose up to KRW 5 million (EUR 3,270) in fines.

By banning all activities under the KGEU name, the Ministry has virtually rendered the union unable to function. According to the KGEU, the union is not an illegal group but a union undergoing the formation process according to the law; notification documents of a new union have been filed with the Labour Ministry, but these have been returned.

Korean Railways deny chances of scholarship to children of strikers: In May it was reported that Korea's railway operator Korail and its subsidiary railway scholarship foundation decided to reinstate a provision which disqualifies the children of employees who have been given internal disciplinary action over the past five years from receiving scholarships. This provision drew protests from the workers' union.

Korail said that this was a previous provision of its scholarship foundation, abolished in April 2009 but reinstated from December 2009. The Korea Railway Workers' Union (KRWU) said that the provision was specifically established when Korail was taking disciplinary action against unionists who had participated in an eight-day strike in November 2001 to punish the children of the 12,000 union members who joined the strike. The scholarship program offers a maximum of KRW one million per semester for university students. Korail refuted the union's claim, saying that the provision has been on the books since 2004 and was only removed accidentally.

Media workers fired for striking: Workers at MBC TV went on strike for 40 days after a conflict over editorial independence. In the run-up to local elections the workers decided to return to work to help with the workload. Despite this Lee Keun-Haeng, president of MBC TV union, was dismissed on 4 June just after the elections. Forty other union members, producers, reporters and technicians were given disciplinary notice of suspension, wage reductions and warning letters by the management as a result of their participation in the strike.

Three Ssangyong Motor union leaders remain in jail while others freed: According to the Korean Metalworkers' Union (KMWU), on 9 August 2010, following a KMWU appeal, the Seoul High Court reduced the sentence of Mr. Han Sang-kyun, former Chair of the KMWU Ssangyong Motor Company Union, from four years to three years. The court also freed 21 other trade unionists imprisoned in the same case. However, they are all released with a three- or four-year suspended sentence, which means that if arrested during this period they will have to serve the full term of their court sentences, inevitably resulting in severe restrictions of their union activities. Mr. Kwon Sunman, a KMWU vice president, was set to be released in October while KMWU executive member Mr. Kim Hyuk, is still serving a four-year sentence.

The unionists were imprisoned in 2009 after a 77-day strike by the Ssangyong Motor Company Union started after the company ordered mass dismissals without notifying the union and thus in violation of the existing collective agreement. In August 2009 Ssangyong Motor management also broke off negotiations and organised riot police to storm the plant's paint shop where around 700 workers had held a sit-in strike since May. Most of the strikers have had difficulties finding new jobs because they have been blacklisted in the local community.

Korean metalworkers protest dispersed by riot police: On 21 October 2010, the Korea Electronics (KEC) factory local union branch of the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) began a sit-in to protest lay-offs and union repression. However, the company as well as local authorities and the government mobilised 1,000 riot police to contain the protest. The police prevented solidarity groups from bringing food and first-aid to the factory and deployed water cannons to harass the workers. Five union members were seriously injured when a police helicopter flew over them at low altitude. Kim Joon-il, the president of the regional branch of KMWU, was faced with police hoping to arrest him when he turned up to the place the company had said was the negotiation venue. He then set himself on fire in protest and was later taken to hospital in a serious condition.

On 3 November, the company promised to resume negotiations, and workers suspended their action. However, by the end of the year no negotiation session had taken place and instead four union members were detained.

Contract workers hired after strike: In November the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU) reached an agreement with Kiryung Electronics over a strike concerning contract workers. Precariously employed women workers at Kiryung Electronics had formed a union in July 2005. On 24 August 2005, the KMWU members started a strike when the company, contrary to promises, had failed to directly employ and had instead sacked dispatched workers that the company claimed were sub-contracted. In the November 2010 agreement, the company promised to hire the remaining ten union members on strike into permanent positions and both sides agreed to withdraw their lawsuits. The case is particularly significant as it is the first time in Korea that an employer has agreed to directly hire dismissed irregular workers into permanent positions.

Hyundai Plant refuses to negotiate with union – strikers dismissed: On 22 July 2010 the Supreme Court ruled on a case filed by former in-house subcontracted workers at Ulsan Plant of Hyundai Motors and essentially stated that when an in-house subcontracted employee had been employed for longer than two years under the employers supervisions, s/he shall be treated as being directly employed by the contractor employer (Hyundai Motor). The court thus confirmed Hyundai Motor's responsibility to employ in-house subcontracted workers directly. Shortly after the ruling, the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU), representing the in-house subcontracted workers at Hyundai Motors, asked the company for collective bargaining on direct employment, but management refused, saying that the union is not its bargaining counterpart.

On 4 November the KMWU filed a lawsuit demanding that in-house subcontracted workers with the service period of two years or longer should be moved to a regular job and compensated for the differences in lost wages – they earned around 50-60% of the wages of direct employees. The KMWU also submitted an application for mediation of an industrial dispute over collective bargaining with Hyundai Motors to the National Labor Relations Commission. The union also conducted strike votes among the unionised non-regular workers in several plants, with the majority voting for a strike.

On 15 November subcontracted workers from one plant were unexpectedly dismissed due to the sudden closure of the subcontractor. Hyundai Motor refused to hire the workers directly and instead asked them to sign a contract with a new contracting firm when and if they withdrew their membership from the KMWU. Forty of them then held a protest, stopping production. They were all immediately arrested by the police after only one hour of protest. After that, 500 workers gathered, and an overall strike was called.

On 9 December the workers agreed to end the strike after facing mounting pressure and a reported KRW 16.2 billion in damage suits. The Central Labour Relation Committee had decided the strike was illegal, and the police issued arrest warrants for 16 union leaders and members. Three unions, including one representing the contract workers, met and agreed to halt the strike on the condition that management would negotiate in good-faith to make the workers full-time Hyundai staff. The strike had been met by beatings and tear gas by local police – scores of contract workers were arrested, and one contract worker attempted to set himself on fire during a rally on 20 November.

More than 1,500 especially subcontracted workers have been unionised since the Supreme Court ruling in July.

GM Daewoo workers hold high altitude protest against anti-union behaviour: On 1 December 2010 two members of the GM Daewoo Irregular Workers Chapter of the Korean Metal Workers' Union's Incheon Local Branch climbed the arch that stands ten meters above the entrance to the factory in Bupyeong and began a 'high-altitude sit-in' that lasted beyond the end of the year. In addition, on 20 December, Sin Hyeonchang, president of the GM Daewoo Irregular Workers Chapter, began a hunger strike, camping out overnight near the factory.

The workers are demanding the reinstatement of 15 union members among those laid off under the pretext of disciplinary action directly after the union chapter was founded in September 2007. Despite the fact that the Labour Standards Act protects the right of all workers to form trade unions, GM Daewoo response was to fire all the officers. The workers are also asking management to recognise the union and regularise irregular workers. Management has refused to address these issues and has continuously rejected negotiations.

Police officers stationed near the protest site have also prevented supporters from lifting weatherproofing equipment up to the workers living on the arch. They are now suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.

Bus workers' strikes met with violence: On 8 December, some 7 local union chapters of the Bus branches of Korean Transport Workers Union (KTWU) went on strike demanding union recognition, minimum wage, working time reduction, and fair allocation of buses. The companies immediately dispersed thugs and substitute workers to break the strikes, and the police arrested 76 union members on the first day of the strikes.

183 members of the Korean Teachers and Educators Union dismissed for supporting opposition: On 23 May 2010, 183 members of the Korean Teachers and Educators Union (KTU) were dismissed from their posts for allegedly joining the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), an opposition party, based on the fact that the individuals made private donations to the DLP. Jeong Jin-Hoo, president of the KTU, begun a hunger strike in protest. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology made its decision to dismiss the teachers for breaching a political neutrality clause that teachers and civil servants are expected to follow under the Civil Servants' Law.

The decision was postponed awaiting legal judgement, but in October the Ministry again ordered each provincial education office to proceed with the immediate dismissal of 134 of the teachers as from 1 November, before the official court's verdict. Four others would be suspended. Of those fired, 50 teachers – who publicly denounced the government – would be dismissed without benefits, depriving them of pensions and other perks given to civil servants. The dismissal process was expected to take about 60 days. Some unionists began hunger strikes and were planning anti-government demonstrations.

Unionists state that school principals who have made donations to the ruling political party, on the same basis as the 183 teachers, have never been subject to the same harsh disciplinary measures from the political authorities and that there is a catalogue of disproportionate disciplinary measures taken against KTU leaders and members who take part in trade union activity, amounting to union discrimination.

In 2009, 16 KTU officials had been detained after a march denouncing the government's decision to punish 88 KTU teachers who were considered to be the instigators of a "Declaration of State Affairs" signed by 17,000 teachers.

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