ILO “immediately intervened” over Korean government’s return-to-work order for striking truckers

Posted on : 2022-12-05 16:11 KST Modified on : 2022-12-07 12:26 KST
While the government has referred to the letter as a “request for opinion,” others say it should not be taken so lightly
Striking workers with the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division head into their sit-in tent in the parking lot of an inland container depot in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province, on Dec. 4 with blankets due to a cold snap. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)
Striking workers with the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division head into their sit-in tent in the parking lot of an inland container depot in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province, on Dec. 4 with blankets due to a cold snap. (Yoon Woon-sik/The Hankyoreh)

The International Labour Organization is taking steps to “intervene” in the South Korean government’s harsh response to a strike by Korean truckers, which the ILO is concerned may be in violation of its fundamental conventions. Despite growing concerns that international labor standards are being violated, the government is preparing to issue more return-to-work orders.

The strike has been organized by the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division, under the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU), which is affiliated with the umbrella Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

“The ILO has immediately intervened with the Government authorities in respect of the issues [. . .] raised [by the KCTU] 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 addressed to Yang Kyeung-soo, the umbrella union’s president.

This response came four days after the KCTU and the KPTU asked the ILO to intervene in the government’s return-to-work orders and the assignment of replacement truckers, actions that they said violated ILO Convention No. 87 concerning the freedom of association and protection of the right to organize and Convention No. 29 on forced labor.

The Korean government hasn’t disclosed the letter sent by the ILO on the grounds that it’s a “diplomatic document.”

But since the ILO said in its letter to the KCTU that it had “recalled the positions of the supervisory bodies in relation to the freedom of association standards and principles emanating from relevant Conventions,” the ILO’s letter appears to have included an earlier recommendation by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association (the supervisory body in question) for the Korean government to guarantee truckers’ freedom of association.

The ILO’s letter likely also said that demands for workers to return to work are a violation of the freedom of association except for circumstances under which a general strike could endanger public lives, health or safety.

“We intend to communicate to the International Labour Organization that we had no choice but to issue a return-to-work order considering that [the truckers’ strike] could endanger public lives, health or safety and have a severe impact on the national economy,” Korea’s Ministry of Employment and Labor said.

However, the Korean government downplayed the significance of the ILO’s intervention as “a simple request for an opinion made on a customary basis.”

This kind of intervention isn’t part of the ILO’s official oversight procedures. When a labor union in an ILO member country files a petition with an ILO oversight body (such as the Committee on Freedom of Association) in regard to a violation of international labor standards, the oversight body typically asks the relevant government for information and carries out an investigation before making the recommendations needed to resolve the issue.

Those procedures take a considerable amount of time. But when a matter is of sufficient severity and urgency, the ILO director-general has the authority to make an intervention, asking for information or submitting an opinion based on the terms of the conventions and earlier recommendations to the government in question.

In effect, the ILO expresses its concerns about violations of the conventions by asking the government in question for its opinion on an issue that has been raised.

Since the intervention recalls a previous decision by the Committee on Freedom of Association, it’s a diplomatic measure vis-à-vis the Korean government, even if it’s not an official procedure, explained Ruwan Subasinghe, legal director of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

Sources say that the ILO’s intervention must be taken more seriously than in the past since it comes after the Korean government’s ratification of ILO conventions related to the freedom of association (No. 87 and No. 98) and that on forced labor (No. 29), all of which entered force in Korea this past April.

A previous intervention by the ILO was prompted by the refusal by the Korean government, under former President Park Geun-hye, to acknowledge the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union as a legal union because there were terminated teachers among its members.

At that time, the Park administration explained that the ILO’s intervention amounted to “conveying to our government the issue raised [by the union] and asking for our opinion.”

“The ILO conventions [ratified by the Korean government] carry equivalent authority to domestic law and, in the event that they conflict with domestic law, the conventions take precedence according to the principles that newer legislation and special acts have priority,” the KPTU said.

ILO member states that have ratified ILO conventions are also obligated to submit a report at an interval of no longer than three years assessing whether domestic law is consistent with the conventions.

“The ILO’s intervention ought to be interpreted as an ‘expression of concern’ about the Korean government’s violation of international labor standards. The government needs to realize that it faces a heavier obligation to abide by the principle of free association following its ratification of the ILO basic conventions,” said Ryu Mi-kyung, the KCTU’s international director.

But Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol instructed relevant ministers in a meeting about the truckers’ strike at the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, on Sunday that return-to-work orders should be immediately issued in sectors that are likely to incur additional damage, such as oil refining and steel.

“Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division has stolen others’ freedom for its own interests and is currently holding the entire economy hostage. That’s a serious violation of the rule of law. This government won’t compromise under any circumstances with groups that systematically engage in illegal activities and violence, and it will force them to take full responsibility for their actions according to law and principle,” Yoon said.

In a separate briefing following the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance Choo Kyung-ho acknowledged that the government had received a letter in the name of the ILO director-general, but said the government regards that as being just “a simple request for an opinion.”

The Korean government’s response could give Korea a reputation in the international community for being backward when it comes to labor rights, some fear.

“The International Labour Organization intervened so quickly, just four days after receiving the request, because it has already communicated strong recommendations [for improvements] to the Korean government about [its handling of] the truckers’ strike. Even though this could earn us a stigma about being backward in regard to human rights in the international community, the government doesn’t seem to be batting an eye,” said Yun Ae-lim, senior researcher at the Law Research Institute at Seoul National University.

Separately from the ILO’s intervention, the KPTU plans to lodge a complaint about the Korean government’s response to the truckers’ strike with the Committee on the Freedom of Association.

By Park Tae-woo, staff reporter

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