INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS AND LABOUR LAW REFORM IN KOREA
NOTE BY TUAC
For the Meeting of the Enlarged Bureau of the OECD ELSAC 14 June 1999
1. The Korean government made a solemn commitment in October 1996 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. Legislative changes
have taken place since then notably in the Trade Union and Labour Relations
Act of March 1997 and the agreements reached by the First and Second Tripartite
Commissions in 1998. These developments have been reviewed by successive
OECD ELSAC and Council meetings. In particular the ELSAC Bureau mission
in September reported on the situation and the ELSA Chair reported to the
OECD Council in October 1998. TUAC has made a series of submissions to
the ELSAC over the past three years; they
are available on the TUAC internet Website.
2. The nine months since the ELSAC mission have seen a worsening of
the industrial relations climate against the background of the economic crisis. The progress which has been made in implementing earlier commitments
notably to give trade union rights to teachers has been overshadowed by
new rounds of arrests of trade unionists. The KCTU, FKTU and subsequently
employers organisations have withdrawn from the Tripartite Commission.
A series of industrial disputes have taken place, primarily over announced
lay-offs of staff. In general these disputes have been regarded by the
authorities as illegal and have been followed by imprisonment of trade unionists.
Current Labour Law Situation
3. Significant elements of Korean labour law continue to breach Freedom
of Association, and diverge from practice in other OECD countries. In November
1998, the ILO Freedom of Association Committee published a further interim
report on the complaint against Korea. The Committees recommendations
adopted by the ILO Governing Body concur closely with the conclusions of
the Chair of ELSAC following the September 1998 Bureau Mission. They establish
the action needed to bring Korea more into line with the Principles of
Freedom of Association in the following areas: trade union rights for teachers;
the right of association and trade union rights for public servants; speeding
up the legalisation of trade union pluralism at the enterprise level; the
full repeal of third party restrictions in collective bargaining and
industrial disputes; the reduction of the list of essential public services;
the ending of legislative interference with regard to the payment of full-time
union officials by employers and eligibility of workers for trade union
office; and the legalisation of the KCTU.
4. Trade union rights for teachers: Since the report of the ELSAC
Chair in October 1998 the right of freedom of association (though not the
right to strike) will be implemented for teachers as of 1 July. The relevant
legislation was passed by the National Assembly in January 1999 and the
administrative decree was passed by the government in May. TUAC issued
a statement welcoming this development. Three teachers organisations now
exist in Korea, the formerly official government controlled Korean Education
Association, the formerly illegal Chunkyojo (the Korean Teachers and Educational
Workers Union) affiliated to the KCTU and a new union affiliated to the
FKTU the Korean Union of Teaching and Education Workers (KUTW).
5. The recognition of the KCTU: following 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 KCTUs notice of establishment. The principal reason was
that an illegal body, the teachers union Chunkyojo, was a
legalisation of Chunkyojo would appear to remove this barrier to the legalisation
of the KCTU. It is therefore essential to move ahead rapidly with the legal
registration of the KCTU.
6. The Freedom of Association for public servants: The establishment
of Works Councils for Government Officials as of January 1999 is welcome
in its own right, but only as a first step towards granting full rights
to organise for all public servants. In addition significant groups of
public servants remain excluded from these representative bodies.
7. The definition of essential public services: It remains 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.
8. Third party intervention: Although previous prohibitions on
third party intervention in industrial disputes have been lifted, unions
are still required to notify to the authorities the names of those assisting
them in such disputes. In view, particularly, of the heavy penalties of
imprisonment for failure to notify, this requirement is potentially of concern.
9. The payment of full time trade union officials: The outlawing
of the payment of full time union officials by employers is an intrusion
of the law into an area which should be left for negotiations between the
10. The eligibility of individuals for union office: This should
be a matter for union members themselves to decide, not the government.
The Imprisonment of Trade Unionists
11. Of most concern in the current situation, however, is the renewed
recourse by the Korean authorities to the imprisonment of trade unionists
for legitimate trade union activities. At the time of the interim report
of the ILO Freedom of Association Committee in November 1998 it was reported
that some 141 trade union leaders were arrested and imprisoned for trade
union activities. At the TUAC consultations with the ELSAC enlarged Bureau
in April 1999 the Korean government representative announced that all but
six of those who had been mentioned in the original freedom of association
complaint by the Korean Metal Workers Federation had been released. Since
that time there has been a further wave of arrests mostly associated with
the industrial disputes in the Seoul subway and hospital sector of April
and May 1999. The KCTU estimate is that as of 5 June there are 61 trade
unionists imprisoned for trade union activity, 51 of whom have been imprisoned
12. Imprisoned trade unionists include the President of the KCTUs largest
affiliate the Korean Metal Workers Federation, Dan Byung-Lo, who was arrested
in October 1998 and sentenced in March 1999 to two years imprisonment (on
appeal reduced to one) for conspiracy to interfere in business activities
by calling for strike action against lay-offs in May and July 1998.
13. The Korean authorities frequently claim that trade unionists that
have been arrested have been apprehended for acts of violence. It is therefore
instructive to examine the press coverage of the Seoul subway workers
strike. The strike took place for eight days from 19 April, following the
announcement of planned lay-offs of 2,078 staff in early April. It appears
that the strike action was regarded as illegal as lay-offs are not an approved
subject for collective bargaining.
14. The following are reported statements of public officials:
Public prosecutors to
take harsh legal action against those who found to be engaged in
illegal disputes - Korea Times - 10 April 1999.
Public prosecutors said
union leaders who incite the struggles will be arrested as soon
as the Seoul Metropolitan Subway Corp. files a complaint - Korea Herald
- 13 April 1999.
Police have said
they intend to use physical force to intervene in the strike as
seen necessary - Chosunilbo - 19 April 1999.
The union strike would be an opportunity to confirm the strong
will of the government to harshly punish illegal labor disputes and send
a message to those refusing to restructure themselves - Joongang Ilbo
- 19 April 1999.
promised to take strong measures against illegal strike action
taken by the Korean Confederation Trade Unions (KCTU) including arresting
its leadership - Chosunilbo - 23 April 1999.
sought arrest warrants for eight Seoul subway union leaders on
charges of illegally disturbing train operations - Korea Times - 4 June
15. A similar process of arrests has taken place with regard to the
strikes in the hospital sector by the Korean Health and Medical Workers
Union in May. The President of the KHMWU and Vice-President of the KCTU
Lee Sang-choon was arrested on 15 May for interference in business. He
has subsequently been released on bail.
16. Arrests have also taken place following the announced industrial
action in May by the Korean Metal Workers Federation (KMWF). A 5 June
statement by the KMWF says: The Kim, Dae-jung administration issued
warrant of arrest to 6 leaders of the KMWF, President, Mun, sung-hyun,
Vice-Presidents, Lee, Hong-woo, Baek, Sun-hwan, Lee, Suk-hyeng, Oh, Jong-soe
and General Secretary, Jun, Jae-hwan. And also, the KMWF central office
organizing department director, Han, Suk-ho is currently in prison, who
was arrested while he led the rolling strike on 13th of May. In addition,
34 KMWF unionists were issued a warrant of arrest.
17. TUAC with both the FKTU and KCTU, the international trade union
movement, Amnesty International, other human rights groups, the ILO and
the OECD ELSAC and OECD Secretary-General have repeatedly called on the
Korean authorities to release trade unionists imprisoned for normal trade
union activities, even when these are illegal under Korean law. It is
therefore of utmost concern that the Korean authorities have yet again
made recourse to the imprisonment of trade unionists.
18. Many of the alleged offences appear to be associated with conspiracy
to interfere in business activities. Information concerning this part
of Korean labour legislation have been filed by the KCTU with the ILO in
November 1998. It appears that as labour law is gradually reformed, new
laws are used to imprison trade unionists.
19. The current situation is undermining support for the law and preventing
the development of trust, which is essential to restoration of the tripartite
process and the creation of a stable industrial relations system which
can manage and minimise conflict and form the necessary social consensus
on which to restructure the economy. This situation is undermining the
international standing of Korea, but also the credibility of the OECD.
The Tripartite Commission
20. Both of TUACs Korean affiliates, the FKTU and KCTU, withdrew from
the Tripartite Commission in the Spring of 1999. They were concerned about
the acceleration of lay-offs and felt that the parties were not delivering
agreements entered into. The government has introduced legislation to reform
the Commission. TUAC hopes that the credibility in the Tripartite process
can be re-established but necessary conditions are the release from imprisonment
of trade unionists and the early establishment of full freedom of association
21. Although the establishment of the right of teachers to join trade
unions and the legalisation of teachers trade unions as of June 1999 was
a welcome step, this and other labour law developments have been overshadowed
by the renewed cycles of arrest and repression of trade unionists. The
first priority must be to release all trade unionists imprisoned for normal
trade union activities. It is important that the legalisation of the KCTU
takes place in the near future. However, there remain a series of other
outstanding changes necessary to bring Korean labour law into line with
Freedom of Association. These have been called for in the past by ELSAC
and the ILO Freedom of Association Committee and ILO Governing Body. They
- the continued restriction of the right of civil servants to join trade
- the excessively wide definition of essential public services whose
workers are denied the right to strike;
- the ratification requirement of third parties in collective bargaining
and industrial disputes with the Ministry of Labour;
- the removal of legislation prohibiting the payment of full time union
officials by employers.
Moreover the increasingly arbitrary definition of interference in business
activities would appear to be a growing and disturbing new source of infringement
of Freedom of Association.