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ROK Labor Unions

Foreign investors and experts consider Korea as having some of the world's most hostile workers. Although only around 10 percent of the Korean labor force is unionized, labor unions are a powerful influence in Korean economic scene, often at the receiving end of complaints from foreign and domestic businesses.

Some of this is due to the "consensus" nature of Korean negotiations, but the largest blame is due to workers being organized at the company-level, rather than at the industry-level. This structure was instituted in 1980 and upheld during the 1987 labor law revisions. This enterprise-based union structure was to blame for the volatility in labor-management relations. The system presented difficulties in all negotiations, introducing significant distrust into labor-management relations.

As of 2017 there were approximately 26 million economically active people in the ROK, with an employment rate (OECD standard) of approximately 66.5 percent. The overall unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in January 2017 was much lower than the unemployment rate of youth ages 15-29, which, at over 10 percent, is becoming a domestic concern. According to the Ministry of Labor, the percentage of unionized workers peaked in 1989 with 19.8 percent and steadily declined to 10.3 percent in 2006.

Irregular workers are hired under contracts of one year or less, receive lower pay, and are not entitled to the same benefits as regular workers. The percentage of irregular workers in Korea was the highest in the developed world. The pay gap between regular and irregular workers contributed to the increasing economic polarization in Korea.

The government that the U.S. had set up after World War II was unpopular. In 1946 and 1948 protest took the form of popular uprisings that were harshly repressed. The General Council of Korean Trade Unions (GCKTU), led by activists from the Communist Party, included hundreds of thousands of members and led the protest marches. It was the prime target of repressive actions and was eventually suppressed in 1948. In 1946 the Syngman Rhee government created the Federation of Korean Trade Unions with the support of the U.S. and of the US TU Council AFL-CIO.

The FKTU was the only legal trade union confederation in South Korea until the 1990s. The antecedent to the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) was established in 1946, but the current iteration of the organization dates back to labor law revisions in 1980, which allowed for unions but mandated they be enterprise- and not industry-based. Under the 1980 revision, the South Korean government, led by authoritarian President Chun Doo-hwan, established FKTU in an effort to control the labor movement.

In the late 1980s, elements of the FKTU became dissatisfied with the collusion between the union leadership and the government, and in 1990 formed a competing organization called the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). The KCTU views itself as the legitimate heir to the workers' struggle, and is more radical -- and often more violent -- than the FKTU. The two organizations have cooperated in the past, but they disagree fundamentally about their respective approaches to labor disputes. FKTU is now quite independent of the government, but the organization has remained close to its government roots.

By 2013 the country had three national labor federations. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), formed in November 1995, has 2,362 labor unions and about 770,000 members and the less militant Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), formed in August 1961, has 415 labor unions and 560,000 members. KCTU and FKTU are affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Most of FKTUs constituent unions maintained affiliations with international union federations. The Korean Labor Union Confederation (KLUC) was the smallest and newest federation, with only 87 unions and about 20,000 members, and attracts those seeking a trade union that is neither militant nor political. There are 2,256 unions with 370,000 workers who do not belong to a nationwide federation but rather focus just on their corporate issues.

The KCTU has often joined violent protests against national projects. It actively participated in the candlelight rallies that led to former President Park Geun-hyes impeachment and the consequential snap election of Moon. Counting on its contributions toward Moons election win, the labor group went on a social general strike in a show of force, pitched tents illegally on sidewalks near Cheong Wa Dae to stage sit-ins and caused traffic chaos with an overnight demonstration downtown.

Legally, unions operate with autonomy from the government and employers, although national labor federations, comprised of various industry-specific unions, receive annual government subsidies. The ratio of organized labor to the entire population of wage earners at the end of 2015 was 10.2 percent; this ratio has remained relatively stable over the last 10 years. ROK trade union participation is lower than the latest-available OECD average of 16.7 percent in 2014.

The Labor Relations Commission is the primary government body responsible for labor dispute resolution. It provides arbitration and mediation services in response to dispute resolution requests submitted by employees, employers, or both parties. MOEL labor inspectors also have certain legal authorities to participate in dispute settlement related to violations of labor rights. The Korea Workers Compensation and Welfare Service handles labor disputes resulting from industrial accidents or disasters. There was particularly strong opposition in 2016 against the merit-based wage system, and workers from a wide range of industries, including banking and public transit, participated in a series of consecutive strikes in September 2016.

The labor movement of 1987 had strong connections to the democracy movement of the same year. In this context of political democratization, the government, which faced strong pressures from the labor movement and opposition parties to reform the existing legal framework for authoritarian labor control, revised the Trade Union Act in November 1987. The revised Trade Union Act promoted workers' rights to organize by abolishing existing requirements and various restrictions placed on labor unions. However, since the revised law prohibited the establishment of multiple unions, it was harshly criticized for the following ten years by union activists at home and by international labor organizations.

Workers welcomed this new era of labor freedom by joining labor unions at an unprecedented rate. Unionization rates increased from 12.4 percent in 1985 to 18.6 percent in 1989. The number of strikes also jumped during this period with approximately 3,500 labor conflicts between July and September 1987 alone.

Between 1987 and 1996, 2,807 union officials were arrested or indicted. The most common grounds for these arrests were violation of the third party provision, obstruction of business and failure to comply with compulsory arbitration. The third party provision stipulated that a third party organization or individual could not interfere in a dispute between an employer and an employee. At the time, the government felt many labor unions and civil right's groups acted "irresponsibly" in these matters and therefore the legislation was designed to exclude all outside forces from intervening in contentious labor situations.

After a decade of pressure and extensive media coverage of the arrest of union officials, the ROKG passed the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act in March 1997. This law was a substantial and full-scale reform of the existing legal framework to administer industrial relations and labor markets. The Act allowed the establishment of multiple unions, removed the provision banning unions' political activities and third party intervention and prohibited wage payments to full-time union official beginning in 2002.

Even after the provision banning third party intervention was repealed, police continued to arrest union officials on other charges. Officials continued to be arrested primarily on the grounds that they violated the terms of compulsory arbitration or obstructed business. Additionally, police began to use more common provisions such as trespassing and traffic violations in order to arrest union officials participating in demonstrations in public areas.

Police generally refrained from arresting union officials who participated in illegal demonstrations or strikes as long as their actions remained peaceful. Additionally, police tended to arrest union officials responsible for organizing violent protests rather than the actual participants of the protests.

Labor unions protested for several different reasons. Although some of the causes were internal to the workplace and the worker, others had an external element or focus. In the past 20 years of labor struggles, the most commonly cited reasons for union uprisings were lack of good faith on the part of the employer and a lack of responsiveness by the ROKG to the complaints of workers. In Lee's opinion, the majority of demonstrations focused externally at the ROKG and labor policies in general as opposed to internal working conditions or labor issues of a specific workplace.

As torch-bearers for the broader union membership, union officials are likely to continue to pursue public actions (demonstrations, protests and strikes) that will draw increased attention to their plight; actions that may often land them in jail as well. Many union officials feel this is an obligation that goes along with their leadership position in the union and do not have reservations about arrest or a criminal record as these are looked upon as badges of courage among leaders at all levels of Korean society.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2017 17:49:22 ZULU