ej tu

ITUC/TUAC sends mission to South Korea in light of ongoing non-compliance with labour standards and violation of trade union rights


TUAC’s General Secretary John Evans is heading an ITUC/ TUAC international mission to Seoul that is motivated by serious concerns about the anti-union policy and harsh repression on the Korean trade union movement.

For the next three days, from January 18 to 20, the examination of the situation on the ground will be central to this international labour mission. Delegates will particularly investigate the criminal punishment of workers for what are deemed unlawful strikes as is the case with the railway workers, which is clearly out of line with ILO’s interpretation of the right to strike.

The aim would also be to enter into a useful dialogue with the government and begin to resolve these issues given that there is willingness on the official site to make decisive changes and commitments.

Continuing labour repression, cancellation of the KTU registration and abuse of government authority against the Railway’s strike

In recent years, successive governments disregarded recommendations made by the ILO's Committee of Freedom of Association in order to bring Korean labour law in line with international standards. It now appears that with measures such as the attempted de-legalization of the Korean Teachers’ Union and the refusal to recognize the KGEU, the situation is moving further backwards.

In December, TUAC affiliates had passed a resolution at its Plenary Session expressing their concern about the situation in Korea. Representatives of the KCTU, FKTU, KTU and KGEU met with the OECD Secretary General at that time. The repression still appears to have increased since then and so we wish to express solidarity with trade unions and their members in their on-going struggle.

The policy pursued by the Korean government violates multiple commitments (ILO, OECD, EU-Korea FTA) and limits the scope of action for unions through restrictive laws and the use of repression in industrial relation conflicts. This is a cause of serious concern for international trade union organizations and human rights advocates alike. It should also be of concern for international organizations as the policy adds to a race to the bottom in terms of labour standards worldwide.

Back in the 1990s, when Korea was joining the OECD, it gave commitments to bring its laws into line with ILO standards (to which the Korean government committed before joining the OECD in 1996) including freedom of association and collective bargaining. A Special Monitoring Process was introduced to make sure that this happened after its accession. It created “peer pressure” in order to help bring Korean labour laws in line with international standards and contributed to the legalisation of independent unions at the time including the KTU and the KCTU itself as well as to new laws such as the third party intervention law. However, there was unfinished business, when the process ended in 2007, which is why TUAC repeatedly asked for its continuation.

In our view, the Korean government should start a process with the ILO to ratify conventions 87 and 98 – otherwise, the pressure for a new OECD monitoring process will increase. With new countries such as Columbia seeking to join the OECD and the OECD examining labour rights there, it will be damaging to the OECD’s credibility and reputation if existing members are seen to move backwards on past commitments.

Call for respect of international conventions

While trade unions are insisting on the ratification of the ILO conventions 87 and 98 by the Korean government, the respect of these conventions is in the interests of Korea itself:  trust needs to be built in industrial relations and conflict handled through negotiation between employers and trade unions – not through the suppression of rights.

However, even without the ratification of international conventions, the Korean government is obliged to comply with them:

  • The adoption of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up in 1998 commits Member States to respect and promote principles and rights in four categories, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions. These categories are: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labour, the abolition of child labour and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
  • The OECD Guidelines for MNEs also require that Korea as a member country complies with core labour standards and thus to recognize and implement trade union rights. The ongoing violation of this commitment cannot be accepted by the OECD.