REPUBLIC OF KOREA: Workers rights at a time of economic crisis

1998 was a difficult year for South Korea's workers. As the economic crisis unfolded and unemployment soared to unprecedented levels, thousands of people were left destitute; disadvantaged groups including women and migrant workers faced new levels of discrimination in the job market and those lucky enough to keep their jobs suffered huge pay cuts. Some of the country's main trade union leaders were arrested and prosecuted for leading strikes and demonstrations to protest against economic policies leading to mass redundancies. Unemployment is expected to increase in 1999, leading to renewed social unrest and further tensions between labour, employers and the government. Amnesty International is calling on the South Korean Government to protect the rights of workers and to ensure that trade union leaders are able to peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association without facing arrest and criminal prosecution.

President Kim Dae-jung took office in February 1998 making  new commitments to protect and promote human rights and his government deserves credit for taking some positive steps. One of its early reforms was the establishment of a Tripartite Commission composed of government, business and trade union representatives. The formation of this commission opened up new possibilities for dialogue with the trade unions and it made a promising start. Disagreements soon emerged, however, over the issue of mass redundancies and the arrests of trade unionists.  Other positive reforms introduced by the new government included the enactment of a law allowing teachers to form and join trade unions and the removal of a ban on trade union participation in political activities.

Amnesty International's main concern on workers rights over the past year has been the arrest, prosecution and harassment of trade union leaders for organizing strike action and demonstrations to protect the rights of their members. During 1998 the economic crisis and conditions laid down by the IMF led to obvious tensions and conflicts of interest between business, labour and the government. The government appears to have viewed trade union protest as an obstacle to economic recovery and a factor which would deter foreign investors. It reacted to strike action by attempting to remove the trade union leaders it deemed responsible and by deploying large contingents of riot police to break strike action and block demonstrations. This resulted in numerous human rights violations, increased tension and less protection for all workers. The National Security Law was also used to arrest trade unionists and workers and some were given heavy sentences. 

As the economic crisis continues, Amnesty International urges the government to recognise that suppression of workers rights is short-sighted and counter-productive. Respect for basic  human rights, including labour rights, will be important for the country's stability, economic recovery and long-term development. 

Arrests of trade union leaders

Comments:
1998 was a difficult year for South Korea's workers. As the economic crisis unfolded and unemployment soared to unprecedented levels, thousands of people were left destitute and disadvantaged groups including women and migrant workers faced new levels of discrimination in the job market. Unemployment is expected to increase in the early months of 1999, leading to renewed social unrest and further tensions between labour, employers and the government. President Kim Dae-jung took office in February 1998 with a new commitment to protect and promote human rights and his government deserves credit for taking some positive steps. But it has resorted to heavy-handed tactics in the face of worker unrest over economic policies leading to job losses. Amnesty International's main concern on workers' rights over the past year has been the arrest and prosecution of trade union leaders for organizing strike action and demonstrations to protect the rights of their members. Although most trade unionists had been released by early 1999, tensions remain and further human rights violations may occur at any time. As the economic crisis continues in 1999, Amnesty International is calling on the South Korean Government to ensure that trade union leaders are able to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association without facing arrest and criminal prosecution. It calls for legal and institutional reforms to protect the rights of all workers and urges the government to recognise that respect for basic human rights, including labour rights, will be important for the country's stability, economic recovery and long-term development.

This 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.