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Labor committee calls for wider union rights

Nov 22,2018
A committee appointed by a presidential advisory body recommended Tuesday that laid-off workers, the unemployed, firefighters and senior civil servants be allowed to join unions in a step toward complying with International Labour Organization (ILO) standards.

The recommendation would give the right to virtually all workers to join unions, a contentious subject in Korea. The recommendation will be followed by a second round of discussions through January.

While Korea joined the ILO in 1991, it deferred certain labor conventions, which the ILO allowed. The Moon Jae-in administration decided to tackle the issue last July and the presidential Economic, Social and Labor Council formed a committee to improve regulations and relations between labor and businesses. Much of its deliberations have focused on the deferred ILO Convention No. 87, which covers freedom of association and protection of the right to organize.

Representatives of labor and businesses failed to come to an agreement during the first round of discussions and the committee’s public interest members, who are third party experts, made a decision: to allow unemployed and laid-off workers, grade-five and senior civil servants, and firefighters to join unions.

If the recommendation is upheld, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union will be legally considered a union. The union was recently at the center of controversy as it included laid-off teachers as members. The new recommendation also opens up further issues such as allowing union members who are currently not part of organizations to determine the organizations’ social welfare policies and participate in their management.

The recommendation would also expand the membership of civil service unions to include people at or higher than grade five. Civil servant positions starts at grade nine and go up to grade one. Currently, civil servant at or higher than grade five cannot join unions.

The possible formation of a firefighters union has also raised concerns about strikes that may lead to tragedies in emergency situations.

The recommendation also includes plans to increase workers exclusively taking part in union activity.

Currently, there are limitations on the number of workers exclusively engaged in union activity. The third party experts recommended that labor and business discuss increasing the union activity time.

Time regulations on union officials were introduced by law in 2010 after criticism that union officials were receiving compensation without doing any actual work. The new recommendation goes against the original intention of that law.

A second round of discussions will center on an agenda presented by the business sector to bring labor regulations up to a global standard. Some of the requests include regulations that exist abroad but not in Korea, such as allowing job sharing, repealing unfair labor practices, increasing the expiration period of agreements between organizations from two years to four years and restricting strikes from occupying company offices.

Regulations surrounding unfair labor practices are difficult to find outside of the United States and Japan. The United States restricts unfair labor practices by both employers and unions, and Japan has no punishment for unfair labor practices.

As there is opposition from labor to the business sector’s requests, an agreement between the two parties might again fail, and the next discussion could also end with a recommendation by the committee’s third party experts.

Friction between labor and business could lead to a dragged out process to ratify ILO conventions.

“The first round results that only focused on the requests of the labor sector do not hold much significance,” said Kim Young-wan, the head of the labor policy bureau at the Korea Employers Federation, a business lobbying group. “In order for the convention to be ratified, it needs to include the agenda that will be requested by the business sector in second-round discussions.”


BY KIM KI-CHAN [chae.yunhwan@joongang.co.kr]