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 The KCTU, FKTU and subsequently employers’ organisations have withdrawn from the Tripartite Commission.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 Committee’s 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 KCTU’s “notice of establishment”. The principal reason was that an “illegal” body, the teachers’ union Chunkyojo, was a member. The 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 parties concerned. 

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 this year.  

12. Imprisoned trade unionists include the President of the KCTU’s 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.  

Government source  
“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.  

Prime Minister  
“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 1999.  

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 TUAC’s 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 rights. 


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 concern: 

- the continued restriction of the right of civil servants to join trade unions; 

- 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. 

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