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 employed workers. 


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 ILO. 

- 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.

14. The ILO recommended the release of imprisoned trade unionists. The fact that the opposite has happened is a major cause for concern. 

Employment Measures 

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 trade unionists. 

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