Korea slated to chair ILO executive body, but has long way to go on its own labor policies

Posted on : 2024-06-14 16:59 KST Modified on : 2024-06-14 16:59 KST
While the labor minister boasted that the position was a reflection of the Yoon administration’s labor policies, there remain outstanding issues under review by the ILO
Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik speaks with reporters at a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 11, 2024, (local time) while there participating in the ILO annual conference. (Yonhap)
Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik speaks with reporters at a hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 11, 2024, (local time) while there participating in the ILO annual conference. (Yonhap)

South Korea looks set to chair the International Labour Organization’s executive body, being the only candidate in an election scheduled for Saturday.

Employment and Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik boasted that Korea was receiving “international recognition for its efforts to improve workers’ basic rights.” But critics say it’s no time for back-patting when Seoul has downplayed the significance of the ILO’s positions and recommendations about guaranteeing the freedom of association.

Lee held a press interview on Tuesday in Geneva, where the International Labour Conference is being held. “Korea has been named the sole candidate for chair of the Governing Body of the International Labour Office for the first time in 21 years. This represents international recognition for the Yoon administration’s policy of advancing basic labor rights and efforts to protect the vulnerable, hold social dialogue and promote labor reforms,” Korea’s labor minister told reporters.

During the same interview, Lee addressed a controversy about the government’s attempt to verify whether labor unions are fulfilling their duties about account book transparency as part of Yoon’s reform initiative to “bring labor-management relations under the rule of law.” “We’re following up on a labor regulation that previous governments have ignored. Calling that ‘labor repression’ not only misrepresents reality but also delays historical development,” he said.

Lee was responding to complaints from Korea’s two umbrella unions that the government initiative to check unions’ account books amounted to excessive meddling in labor activities.

But contrary to Lee’s assessment, the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) has filed a “direct request” with the government about that issue and asked for an improvement of the provision in the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act that Lee said was the government’s grounds for reviewing trade unions’ account books.

The CEARC noted that laws that authorize executive bodies to review organizations’ account books and documents and request information from them at any time are not in keeping with conventions on the freedom of association and asked the Korean government to “take any necessary measures” to ensure that the legal provisions are not applied in a way that interferes with labor unions’ functioning.

In March, the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association also recommended that the Korean government ensure that all workers — including self-employed workers in the freight industry — can fully enjoy the freedom of association and the principle of collective bargaining. That recommendation was a response to the stern measures the Korean government took against a 2022 strike by the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union on the grounds of applying the rule of law to labor-management relations.

So even though the ILO has expressed criticism about the Korean government’s application of legal provisions that don’t align with its convention on the freedom of association (which the Korean government has ratified), Lee said in a speech at the International Labour Conference on Monday that “the spirit of the ILO is to guarantee the principles of the freedom of expression while also respecting each country’s domestic laws.”

The Korean government had already downplayed the significance of the Committee on Freedom of Association’s recommendation as “not being legally binding” and is now stressing “respect for domestic laws.”

Responding to Lee’s remarks, Ryu Mi-kyung, the international director of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), told the Hankyoreh on June 13 that “the government hasn’t taken any steps to respect international labor standards since ratifying the convention on the freedom of association.”

She added that Korea’s nomination as the only candidate for chair “is not a recognition of its efforts, but a pointed message that Korea needs to play a role befitting its prestige.”

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions also released a statement about Lee’s comments. “While this is not to disparage Korea being named the chair country of the Governing Body, it’s unsightly to overstate its significance. We hope [the government] will reflect upon whether it should be ashamed of its behavior given the prestige and honor of becoming the chair country. We also hope it will restore basic labor rights through such steps as revising Articles 2 and 3 of the Trade Union and Labor Relations Act.”

By Park Tae-woo, staff reporter

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

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