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The Council of Global Unions (CGU) condemns flagrant worker rights’ violations in South Korea

10 May 2023

On the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Yoon, the Council of Global Unions, representing 200 million workers around the world expresses deep concern on the recent attacks, judicial harassment, and interference against the legitimate activities of trade unions and the rights of working people in South Korea.

It is unacceptable that this repression continues, despite South Korea having acceded to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No.87 on freedom of association and Convention No.98 on collective bargaining two years ago.

On May Day, Yang Hoe-Dong, a district leader of the Korean Construction Workers Union (KCWU), tragically set himself on fire to protest harassment of trade unionists by government authorities. Yang, one of the victims of that harassment, sadly passed away from complications of severe burns.

Yang left a message before his self-immolation saying that, although he had carried out his union duties lawfully, he had been charged with obstruction of business, coercion, and extortion. The self-immolation of Yang is reminiscent of the darkest years in the labour history of South Korea.

The false criminal charges of coercion and extortion against trade unionists stem from the anti-union policy of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government. The government uses not social dialogue but the police forces in industrial relations. In the construction sector, the police launched a special investigation targeting unions, only to criminalise normal trade union activities. Following the President’s anti-union language, comparing construction unions with organized criminals at construction sites, the police intentionally used this logic to smear the union, devastating the dignities of union leaders. Yang was one of the 950 union officials summoned by the police during the special investigation and currently 16 of them are detained with such criminal charges.

The government’s anti-union repression is not just limited to the construction sector, restrictive definitions in the labour law mean everyday trade union activities are being criminalised. For example, a strike of cargo truck drivers was declared illegal in November 2022. Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) foisted a 47 billion KRW (approximately USD 35.6 million or EUR 32.3 million) lawsuit on five union leaders relating to missed production targets during a strike. A clear retaliation aimed to chill subcontracted workers’ exercise of fundamental union rights

Despite clear recommendations from the ILO, UN Treaty bodies, and the Expert Panel established as part of the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the Government continues to block any amendment to the Trade Union and Labour Relation Adjustment Act to bring it in line with international standards.

Furthermore, the Yoon administration has initiated a systematic smear campaign against trade unions based on groundless allegations of corruption and administrative irregularities. The CGU has noted with great concern that the authorities are interfering into the management and activities of trade unions, demanding submission of copies of trade union budgets and amendment of trade union constitutions. These are serious violations of the right to freedom of association under ILO Convention No.87.

President YOON Suk-yeol’s union-bashing rhetoric and illegitimate use of public prosecutors and police to attack trade unions has set a national tone that is echoed on the ground in workplaces across the country with increasingly violent attacks against trade unionists. On 4 May 2023, a manager of ILJIN Hysolus, which is a supplier of Hyundai Motor and BMW, rammed his car into local trade union leaders hitting 3 of them and causing serious injuries to the union’s vice chair.

The CGU condemns the criminalisation of trade union activity and the raids of trade union offices led by the Yoon administration. We call on the South Korean Government to meet their international obligations, fully respect the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and end their repression of the South Korean Trade Union movement.

The CGU demands the release and withdrawal of all charges against workers who have been detained for exercising their fundamental trade union rights. We further urge the government to cease all acts of smearing and criminalisation against trade unionists which are not constructive to establishing stable industrial relations but rather create a climate of fear and intimidation inimical to workers exercising rights protected by domestic and international law.

Organising is a right, not a crime.

The CGU stands with the South Korean trade union movement in their ongoing struggle for freedom and justice. It sends its condolences to the wife and children of Yang Hoe-Dong as well as to his trade union family.

Stephen Cotton, General Secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation

Christy Hoffman, General Secretary, UNI Global Union

Luc Triangle, Acting General Secretary,  International Trade Union Confederation

Sue Longley, General Secretary, International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations

Atle Høie, General Secretary, IndustriALL Global Union

Ambet Yuson, General Secretary, Building and Wood Worker’s International

Rosa Pavanelli    General Secretary,      Public Services International

Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary,  International Federation of Journalists

David Edwards, General Secretary, Education International

Veronica Nilsson, Acting General Secretary, Trade Union Advisory Committee to OECD

Benoît Machuel, General Secretary, International Arts and Entertainment Alliance