INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS IN KOREA
TUAC Briefing Note
Repression of union rights up to 1997
1. The current situation has to be seen against the background of the
Korean Labour Market "model" in which trade unions were highly regulated
by the government, and workers were given legal protection such as employment
security to compensate. Although authoritarian rule formally ended in 1987,
Korean labour law has remained extensively in breach of core ILO standards,
notably on Freedom of Association. Despite this, trade unions became more
independent over this period and in the early 1990's formed an "independent"
national centre, the KCTU alongside the only legal national centre the
FKTU. The KCTU was the target of government repression during the industrial
conflicts that have taken place and there have been several waves of imprisonment
of KCTU trade unionists. Korea joined the ILO in 1992 and the OECD in 1996.
Promises given by the governments then in power to both Organisations to
bring Korean labour law into line with international standards of freedom
of association were not honoured. This has led to censures from both the
ILO and the OECD after the special ELSA meeting in January 1997.
2. Industrial relations problems came to a head in the general strike
of December 1996 and January 1997 provoked by dubious passing of legislation,
which simultaneously removed employment protection and reduced already
limited trade union freedoms. The strike was supported by both the FKTU
(showing an increasingly independent line under new leadership) and the
KCTU and won widespread public and international support and in the end
the government of President Kim Young Sam backed down. The international
trade union movement was highly active in supporting the Korean trade unions
at this time. Both the FKTU and the KCTU joined TUAC as affiliates at the
end of 1997.
3. In the presidential election campaign of autumn 1997 the FKTU under
the leadership of their new president Park In-Sang backed the eventual
winner Kim Dae-Jung, whilst the KCTU president Kwon Young-Kil himself stood
(with little success) as a candidate.
4. Since November 1997 labour market developments in Korea have been
dominated by the impact of the economic and financial crisis. The interconnected
effects of the deep economic recession, economic restructuring, Chaebol
reform and reduction of employment protection have produced an explosive
atmosphere spilling over into the industrial disputes this summer. The
continuing existence of labour laws which breach international standards
of freedom of association have only worsened this situation. Recourse to
these laws resulted in a further round of imprisonment of trade unionists
in July and August.
The Tripartite Commission
5. Both before and after his election Kim Dae-Jung made public statements
in favour of freedom of association. The decision to establish a Tripartite
Commission in January 1998 to seek agreement on measures to overcome the
economic crisis was a significant event and a different approach from previous
governments. The Tripartite Commission included both the two Korean trade
union confederations, the FKTU and the still illegal KCTU. The agreement
concluded by the Tripartite Commission on February 6, 1998, if and when
implemented in legislation would make an important move towards the objective
of establishing freedom of association in Korea to which the government
of Korea committed itself at the time of its accession to the OECD and
ILO. However the main parts of the agreement concerning trade union rights
are still only to be enacted in 1999, whereas parts of the agreement facilitating
companies to lay-off workers were enacted immediately. At the same time
even with the proposed changes some of the contraventions of freedom of
association would remain and further legal changes are required to bring
legislation into line with the ILO.
6. The process of accepting legal changes which would permit mass lay-offs
when only accompanied by the establishment of a partial unemployment insurance
system was not an easy compromise for the unions to accept. Both FKTU and
KCTU leadership signed the tripartite agreement, but the rank and file
of the KCTU subsequently rejected the agreement and their leadership resigned.
A new leadership was elected at the end of March. The KCTU president is
currently Lee Kap-Yong, originally from the Hyundai union.
7. The KCTU organised a May Day rally to demonstrate against lay-offs,
which ended in violence and resulted in a series of arrest warrants being
issued for trade unionists. This was followed by nation-wide strikes against
lay-offs organised by the KCTU on 27-28 May following which there appears
to have been an agreement on 5 June between government representatives
and the KCTU to withdraw arrest warrants and the process of the Tripartite
Commission would resume. However, feeling that the agreement was not being
honoured the KCTU organised another strike on 14 July led by their affiliates
the Korean Metal Workers’ Federation, the Korean Telecom Trade Union and
bank workers. The government denounced these strikes as illegal. The Telecom
workers case was a strike in an “essential public service”. As a result
of this action the KCTU has stated that as of August 57 trade unionists,
including Koh Young-Joo, the KCTU General Secretary are imprisoned, with
some 200 further arrest warrants having been issued. The arrest of trade
unionists was the subject of a further formal complaint by the KCTU to
the ILO on 18 August. TUAC and the ICFTU issued a joint statement and wrote
to the Korean President urging the government not to revert to a crackdown
and to resume tripartite dialogue. This was backed up by TUAC and ICFTU
affiliates. (See attached statement and correspondence.)
8. On 17 July Hyundai Motors issued redundancy notices to some 1,600
workers. This resulted in a strike action, a month long workers occupation
of the Hyundai plant at Ulsan and the risk of a serious confrontation and
crackdown. The government intervened to encourage a settlement, which was
reached with the union and management on 24 August. This involved restricting
the redundancies to the more limited number of 277 workers. On 1 September,
however, a ballot of the plant workforce voted against the agreement although
work at the plant has resumed.
9. At the same time a strike over lay-offs at the auto parts manufacture
Mando was ruled illegal. The union leadership was arrested on 3 September
and the strike was violently broken up (see Koilaf Labor News 01/09). The
ICFTU responded with a public condemnation of the police action (attached).
10. The KCTU is, according to press reports, now reassessing its position
in the Tripartite Commission. A further Freedom of Association complaint
has been filed by the KCTU (attached) on 7 September concerning government
CURRENT LABOUR LAW SITUATION
11. The Korean government made a solemn commitment at the time of its
accession to the OECD to "reform its legislation in line with internationally
accepted standards, including such basic rights as freedom of association
and collective bargaining". Explicit and implicit assurances were also
given at the time of accession to the ILO. The ILO took an unprecedented
act in sending a high level tripartite mission to Korea in February of
this year to underline the importance of the need for legal changes. In
the same spirit the current visit by members of the OECD Employment Committee
(ELSAC) Bureau is regarded by the international trade union movement as
a significant event.
12. At the time of TUAC’s consultations with the ELSA Committee Bureau
in April 1998 we said that in the months ahead it is essential that the
government moves quickly to guarantee basic union freedoms in both legislation
and in administrative decisions. It is also important that mass lay-offs
are minimised and active labour market policies and social security systems
are built up so that Korean workers can establish confidence in the tripartite
process. International pressure and support in both these endeavours could
be important and helpful. The events have borne out clearly this assessment.
We would urge the ELSA mission to contribute to this end.
13. On the basis of the ILO Freedom of Association Committee Interim
Report of April 1998 (Case N°1865) (attached), action would seem particularly
important in the following areas:
- The recognition of the KCTU: despite the removal of
the ban on union plurality at national and sectoral level in the March
1997 Trade Union and Labour Relations Adjustment Act, the Korean authorities
rejected the KCTU's "notice of establishment". The principal reason was
that an "illegal" body, the teachers’ union Chunkyojo - was a member. The
Commission's proposal to allow trade union rights for teachers would, if
enacted, remove this barrier to the legalisation of the KCTU, but under
the current proposal not until July 1999. The ILO Freedom of Association
Committee report urged the Korean government to implement this as soon
as possible. Given the fact that the KCTU General Secretary is currently
imprisoned, the legalisation of the KCTU remains a key issue. This lends
weight to the arguments set out below in favour of the immediate implementation
of freedom of association for teachers. Otherwise the KCTU is likely to
technically remain an illegal organisation.
- Trade union rights for teachers: the decision of the
Commission to recommend that teachers' unions be permitted is welcome and,
as pointed out above, could remove the most important hurdle to recognition
of the KCTU. All should try to encourage early implementation of this recommendation.
Delay raises the risk that those vested interests who have in the past
blocked the granting of trade union rights for teachers could do so again.
TUAC would urge the government to make a strong statement in support of
early implementation of the Commission's recommendation in this area. A
separate note on Freedom of Association for teachers from the Education
International is attached.
- The establishment of Works Councils for Government Officials
as from January 1999: this development is welcome in its own right,
but only as a first step. Rapid progress needs to be made towards granting
full rights to organize for all public service workers as noted by the
14. The ILO recommended the release of imprisoned trade unionists. The
fact that the opposite has happened is a major cause for concern.
- The definition of essential public services: it is of concern
that the continuing definition of essential public services, which are
denied the right to strike includes non-essential services such as the
Mint, petroleum refining, banking, transport and telecommunications. Legitimate
disputes by workers in these sectors are still subject to "compulsory arbitration",
which violates ILO rulings in this area. The leadership of the telecommunication
workers’ union is now imprisoned as a result of this legislation.
- Third party intervention: Although previous prohibitions on
third party intervention in industrial disputes have been lifted, unions
are still required to notify the names of those assisting them in such
disputes to Government. In view, particularly, of the heavy penalties for
failure to notify, this requirement should be dropped.
15. The scale of the current economic crisis and growth of unemployment
has meant that the tripartite agreement including the Korean trade union
movement is in a highly tenuous situation. There must be a commitment by
employers to honour their responsibilities, especially in relation to respecting
the conditions for dismissal; making efforts to avoid dismissals; following
the agreed procedures for dismissal and; re-hiring dismissed workers. On
this the government must follow up its commitment to strictly enforce the
rules governing dismissals for "particularly those which seek to take advantage
of the economic crisis".
16. The World Bank has been seeking to assist Korea in establishing
a safety net. However the government must supplement the resources set
aside for the extension of the unemployment insurance scheme. Only one
third to one quarter of the labour force will be covered by the schemes.
There is an urgent need to fund active labour market programmes to assist
the speedy re-integration of the unemployed back into employment and to
avoid unemployment becoming structural.
17. The government must now move forward to reform the Chaebols and
ensure that the burden of adjustment is shared by all sectors of society,
but in such a way as to minimise employment losses.
18. The IMF and the World Bank are clearly active in Korea. TUAC has
urged the OECD to also play a key role in supporting Korea in this time
of crisis. The moment has arrived where the ELSAC must undertake urgently
a broad-based labour market review on the Republic of Korea.
19. Trade unions are a key factor in managing the changes in the very
fragile social situation without the social crisis worsening further. It
is essential that the government moves away from the current trend to cracking
down on unions to move forward the agenda on establishing Freedom of Association.
The ELSA mission must reinforce this message and urge the release of imprisoned