[Editorial] Yoon’s nonchalance at ILO notice is worrying sign for labor rights in Korea

Posted on : 2022-12-05 16:12 KST Modified on : 2022-12-05 16:12 KST
The government needs to recognize that Korea may gain a stigma for being backward in labor rights and other human rights if it continues down this path
President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a meeting of relevant ministers in regard to the strike by workers with the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division at his office in Yongsan, Seoul, on Dec. 4. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a meeting of relevant ministers in regard to the strike by workers with the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division at his office in Yongsan, Seoul, on Dec. 4. (courtesy of the presidential office)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has sent an official letter to the South Korean government about its alleged violations of basic labor rights in connection with the truckers’ strike, the Hankyoreh learned on Sunday. While that essentially illustrates the international concerns prompted by the Korean government’s hard-line response, President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered the government on Sunday to immediately draft a return-to-work order not only in the cement sector but also in the oil refining and steel sectors.

The government needs to recognize that Korea may gain a stigma for being backward in labor rights and other human rights just a few months after Korea won plaudits for ratifying the ILO’s fundamental conventions, which entered force this past April.

“The ILO has immediately intervened with the Government authorities and recalled the positions of the supervisory bodies in relation to the freedom of association standards and principles emanating from relevant Conventions,” the ILO said in a letter sent to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) on Friday.

This response came after the KCTU and the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU) made a request on Nov. 28 for the ILO to urgently intervene in the government’s return-to-work orders and the assignment of replacement truckers, actions they said violated ILO Convention No. 87 on the freedom of association and protection of the right to organize and Convention No. 29 on forced labor.

The Committee on the Freedom of Association, the ILO supervisory body in question, earlier recommended that Korea guarantee truckers’ freedom of association, right to organize, and right to collective bargaining in 2011 and 2015, even before Korea had ratified key conventions No. 29, No. 87 and No. 98.

A member of the Cargo Trucker Solidarity Division holds a sign with three of the union’s demands — abolition of the sunset clause of a minimum pay system, reduction of blind spots, expansion of minimum pay system to other cargo types — while a police officer confronts him. (Yonhap)
A member of the Cargo Trucker Solidarity Division holds a sign with three of the union’s demands — abolition of the sunset clause of a minimum pay system, reduction of blind spots, expansion of minimum pay system to other cargo types — while a police officer confronts him. (Yonhap)

The swift response from the ILO, just four days later, suggests that it’s well-informed about this matter and paying close attention to it. But the Korean government, without publishing the letter it received from the ILO, has downplayed its significance, describing the letter as not an “intervention” but merely a “request for an opinion” following the KCTU’s request.

Furthermore, Yoon himself adopted a harder line in a meeting with related ministers the day the receipt of the letter became known, saying, “This government won’t compromise under any circumstances with groups that engage in illegal activities and violence.” Yoon’s instructions make it more likely that the government’s unprecedented return-to-work order will be extended to other sectors in the cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Yoon is paying little mind to how the “laws and principles” he referred to may clash with international conventions. Furthermore, his administration doesn’t seem to recall how the EU pressured Korea to ratify the ILO’s key conventions, citing provisions in the two sides’ free trade agreement.

We’re concerned that the government’s threats to “punish” the truckers, without any mention of safety measures, far from resolving the present situation, will only bring down condemnation from the international community.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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