Korea (Republic of)


No guarantee of rights

Same as last year

Workers' rights violations

Right to free speech and assembly

In South Korea, the police banned a demonstration of 499 participants by the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union just two days after it announced a policy to allow smaller demonstrations near the Office of the President. Conflict between the new government and labour was steadily mounting following its hardline response to the Cargo Truckers solidarity strike.

The union called the strike, which began on 7 June 2022, to demand that the government extend a freight rate system guaranteeing basic wages for truck drivers to cope with surging fuel costs (known as ‘safe rates’).

In addition to banning the demonstration, the authorities also took a hard line on picketing. By 10 June, a total of 30 striking truckers had been taken into police custody for allegedly obstructing business.

The strike was suspended on 14 June, when Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol) reached an agreement with the South Korean Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transport on the continuation of the safe rates system. The Ministry promised to “continue to propel forward the safe rates system and discuss expansion to other freight types”.

However, the dispute further escalated later in the year as the government invoked emergency laws, issuing ‘return to work’ orders against individual drivers to break another truck drivers’ strike in December.

Violent attacks on workers

On 18 January 2023, the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union’s (KHMU) were targeted by the Korean intelligence agency (NIS).

On the morning of the 18 January, the NIS and the National Police Agency (NPA) raided nearly a dozen of the KCTU offices over alleged espionage activities linked to North Korea. The NIS said it had obtained a search-and-seizure warrant from the court for the labour union on charges of violation of the National Security Act.

Along with the KCTU headquarters in central Seoul and the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union office on Yeouido, the authorities simultaneously raided the KIA Motor workers’ union office in Gwangju, as well as the houses of four union members suspected of allegedly breaching the law.

The KCTU officials attempted to block the officers from entering, demanding the raid be carried out in the presence of a lawyer, but the investigators pushed ahead and launched the raid, which lasted about 10 hours.

On the same day, around 20 investigators from the NIS and the NPA searched the premises of the KHMU, while more than 200 police officers filled the entrance to the KHMU building.

Raids continued on 19 January as police targeted construction unions affiliated to the KCTU and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU).

This is not the first act of repression by the Korean government against the union movement. In 2021, the president of the KCTU was arrested and in December 2022, the authorities tried to raid union offices to break a strike by truck drivers.

Right to civil liberties

Youn Taeg-gun, first vice president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), was arrested and detained on 4 May 2022 for his leading role in organising a general strike on 20 October 2021. Youn led the strike in part because, at the time, KCTU President Yang Kyeung-soo was in detention on similar charges. Like President Yang, Youn was charged with violation of the Infectious Disease Control Act on Demonstration and Assembly, despite the KCTU’s proper observance of Covid-19 protocols.

On 5 August 2022, the Seoul Central Municipal Court ruled that there was no legal justification to continue to hold Youn. He was released after 94 days in detention, following a strong international campaign on his behalf.

Right to civil liberties

On 25 April 2022, Bongju Lee, President of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (KPTU-TruckSol) and Geon-yeong Kim, KPTU-TruckSol Incheon Regional Branch Chair were threatened with arrest by authorities.

The threat of arrest related to protests held more than seven months ago were made despite either man having been formally indicted on charges related to the warrant. Authorities were preparing to make the arrests using powers that allow the police to detain suspects while they are under investigation, though both men had pledged to cooperate fully with any enquiries.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) intervened to prevent these politically motivated arrests.

Union busting

In June 2022, the Korea Federation of Banks (KFB) suddenly dismissed three former officials from the Korean Finance Industry Union (KFIU).

The reason for the dismissals dates back to an incident in 2017, where the three officials led a visit to the KFB office to protest against the forced introduction of performance salary reforms by the Financial Services Commission for public corporations, and to demand the restoration of collective bargaining. There were clashes during the visit, and the three officials were later charged and given prison and probation sentences.

To avoid repeating similar incidents, the KFIU and the bankers’ association agreed not to press charges or retaliate further against the three union leaders. The association even assured the KFIU as recently as May 2022 that they would avoid any retaliation. It came as a shock, therefore, when the three former officials were issued the notice a month later.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

December 2022 marked an unprecedented attack on the right to strike in South Korea as the government invoked emergency laws, issuing ‘return to work’ orders against individual truck drivers to break a strike which had begun on 24 November.

Throughout 2022, truck drivers in South Korea had organised several collective actions in front of the HiteJinro premises in Seoul and Incheon. HiteJinro, the largest liquor maker in the country, also owns Suyang Logistics, a freight consignment company. Drivers, who are classified as independent contractors, demanded an increase in pay rates to meet the sharp increase in transportation fees due to skyrocketing fuel costs. They had been benefitting from ‘safe rates’, a landmark scheme for maintaining decent pay for truck drivers. However, the trial period was set to end in December 2022 and companies, such as HiteJinro, had been lobbying hard to stop it from being renewed.

Instead of bargaining with the drivers’ union (Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division - KPTU-TruckSol), HiteJinro cancelled the contracts of 130 workers. The company also filed a legal action for damages of KRW 2.8 billion (US$20 million) against striking workers. Managers also called in police forces to break up the workers’ peaceful protests. In October, police arrested 15 unionised truck drivers picketing a factory in Incheon.

The government struck the last blow to the drivers’ movement with its return-to-work orders. Government agencies also used investigatory powers to intimidate union leaders and threatened strikers with criminal penalties and financial claims for damages.

On 9 December, in the face of the government’s anti-union stance, including the criminalisation of the strike and under the threat of criminal punishment for non-compliance with return-to-work orders, 62 per cent of KPTU-TruckSol members voted to end the strike. Meanwhile, the government backtracked on its promise to renew ‘safe rates’, saying that it had no intention of cooperating with opposition lawmakers to pass the proposed legislation, and that their previous proposal for an extension was only valid before workers went on strike.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In South Korea, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) filed a KRW 47 billion (US$ 35.3 million) damage claim suit against leaders of the Korea Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU) Geoje Tongyeong Goseong Shipbuilding Subcontracting Branch on 26 August 2022, alleging financial losses incurred during a strike.

The strike had begun in June, when more than 10,000 subcontracted workers asked for a 30 per cent pay rise. The contract workers said they were only paid the minimum wage of KRW 9,160 per hour, even for critical work such as welding, and even though many had more than 10 years’ experience.

Around 100 subcontractors occupied the main dock at the shipyard run by DSME in the southern city of Geoje. The union called off the strike on 22 July after 51 days, when the workers accepted a 4.5 per cent pay rise. The deal also included better time-off, benefits and other improvements.

DSME claimed it had filed the lawsuit in order to prevent the recurrence of strikes.

Security forces in South Korea raided nearly a dozen union offices in January 2023. The country was one of 44 countries where the authorities carried out violent attacks against working people.KCTU

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