ILO’s letter to Yoon admin: Back-to-work orders restrict workers’ freedom of association

Posted on : 2022-12-07 17:07 KST Modified on : 2022-12-07 18:16 KST
Though the government has downplayed the correspondence as a “request for opinion,” others say it is more significant
Police watch as a freight truck pulls a container at an inland container depot in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province on Dec. 5, the 12th day of the TruckSol strike. (Yonhap)
Police watch as a freight truck pulls a container at an inland container depot in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province on Dec. 5, the 12th day of the TruckSol strike. (Yonhap)

In a letter sent to the Korean government on Friday, the International Labour Organization (ILO) stated clearly that Seoul’s back-to-work orders issued to striking truckers “restrict[s] workers’ freedom of association rights.”

The strike is being organized by the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division (TruckSol), an affiliate of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU).

The government dismissed the letter’s significance on Sunday, calling it nothing more than an “opinion request” while declining to disclose the actual content of the letter. But given the ILO’s message strongly advising the Labor Ministry to comply with its convention on freedom of association rights, critics stressed that the Yoon Suk-yeol administration — which has stressed “law and rules” in dealing with the striking truckers — must abide by international labor agreements.

On Tuesday, the Hankyoreh acquired a copy of the intervention letter, which was sent in the name of the secretary-general of the ILO.

“The ILO supervisory bodies have considered that back-to-work orders in transport services and similar sectors restrict workers' freedom of association rights and have held that penal sanctions should not be imposed on any worker for participating in a peaceful strike,” it read.

Like the Committee on Freedom of Association, the supervisory bodies in question make determinations on whether member country governments are in violation of conventions. Based on past judgments by those bodies, the letter emphasized that the South Korean government was “restrict[ing] workers’ freedom of association rights” by issuing back-to-work orders to cement truck drivers with potential criminal punishments for noncompliance.

In a message to the South Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL), the ILO said, “I trust, honourable Minister, that your Government will be able to avail itself of this useful guidance with a view to resolving this dispute in compliance with freedom of association standards and principles emanating from Conventions Nos 87 and 98 [on freedom of association] that recently entered into force [in April] in the Republic of Korea.”

“I would be grateful if you would transmit any comments or observations your Government might wish to make on these matters,” the document continued. Emphasizing the fact that South Korea’s government had ratified the conventions on freedom of association, it demanded that Seoul honor its obligations based on the intervention procedures.

After news of the ILO’s intervention became known on Sunday, Seoul rushed to downplay its significance.

Even though the document was issued in the name of the secretary-general of a UN-affiliated international organization, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance Choo Kyung-ho said, “We see it as just an opinion.”

The MOEL similarly insisted, “This is just part of a normal procedure, where they notify the country in question when its labor community raises issues with the ILO.”

But some analysts suggested the significance of the intervention letter goes beyond a mere “opinion.”

“Given things like the emphasis on the firmness of the ILO’s position, this was the ILO determining that the South Korean government is in violation of conventions on freedom of association,” concluded Yun Ae-lim, a senior research fellow at the Seoul National University Law Research Institute.

Oh Sung-hee, who serves as director of international affairs for the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU), stressed, “We should pay attention to the fact that the ILO mentioned the freedom of association conventions that the South Korean government ratified while instructing it to resolve the dispute according to the ‘guidance’ based on that principle.”

“As someone who emphasized the importance of ‘laws and rules’ during the TruckSol strike, President Yoon should also abide by the conventions on freedom of association,” she urged.

ILO conventions hold the same force as domestic law and must be upheld in all legislative, executive, and judicial areas. In a lawsuit filed by TruckSol members to demand the overturning of the back-to-work order, the trial is to focus not only on whether the actions were lawful according to the Trucking Transport Business Act, but also whether they violated Conventions No. 87 and 98 on freedom of association.

Also, while Seoul does not stand to suffer any clear disadvantages from the international community even if it violates the conventions, it recognizes that compliance with international labor standards affects trade and its prestige in the international community.

After the National Assembly passed the ratification motion for the three core conventions in February 2021, the MOEL said at the time that the “ratification of ILO core conventions holds great meaning in external terms, in that we will be contributing to enhancing our national prestige and national credibility by honoring our commitments to the international community, and it will also help reduce trade risks by lowering the potential for disputes over free trade agreements containing labor-related provisions, including the South Korea-European Union FTA.”

By Park Tae-woo, staff reporter

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