S. Korea continues to dawdle in ratifying core ILO conventions

Posted on : 2019-11-17 15:05 KST Modified on : 2019-11-17 15:05 KST
National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee has yet to even discuss relevant bills
Terminated teachers view gifts of book-shaped stamps at a small park near Gwanghwamun Square on May 27, a day before the 30th anniversary of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)
Terminated teachers view gifts of book-shaped stamps at a small park near Gwanghwamun Square on May 27, a day before the 30th anniversary of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)

A month has passed since a motion to ratify key conventions of the International Labor Organization and a revision to the Labor Relations Act were submitted to the National Assembly. Since bills aren’t debated while the National Assembly is auditing government agencies, lawmakers can’t be criticized for dawdling that whole time. But more than two weeks after the audit concluded, the Environment and Labor Committee, the committee responsible for these bills, hasn’t even decided when to convene its bill review subcommittee. Tellingly, the Environment and Labor Committee is the only one of the National Assembly’s 17 standing committees to be so tardy.

To be sure, all the issues debated in the National Assembly are important, but the ILO conventions ratification and the Labor Relations Act revision ought to take priority, since they aim to lay the foundation for enabling workers to work with dignity and be treated fairly. But the Environment and Labor Committee reportedly hasn’t even managed to start debating those bills.

The ratification motion that the government has sent the National Assembly concerns Conventions 87 and 98, which concern the freedom of association, and Convention 29, which bans forced labor. The most contentious parts of these conventions have to do with guaranteeing workers’ right to organize, or in other words the right for all workers to make or join labor unions, and the freedom of association, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of labor activity.

While one might ask why a country whose constitution guarantees the three rights of workers (namely, the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to collective action) would need to ratify these conventions, the fact is that these three rights are currently limited in their application. For example, a firefighter is unable to make or join a labor union under the current laws. These “extreme workers” often have trouble getting protective gear and have to pay for gear out of their own pockets, but they have no way to collectively ask their employers to address these issues.

Ratification motion could be automatically discarded at end of parliamentary session

The same can be said for the unemployed and terminated workers. One good example is the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU). While teachers all work at different schools, their employers, namely the Ministry of Education and municipal and provincial education offices, have signed collective agreements with the union. But the KTU has been stripped of its official status as a union simply because its rolls include terminated individuals. In a world where people frequently are fired after a few months of work and then have to spend several more months looking for another job, doesn’t it seem bizarre that people would have to leave a labor union simply because they’ve been terminated or unemployed?

This could be corrected by the core convention about the freedom of association. But the business community is opposing the ratification of these conventions with its typical complaint that “the move is premature,” an argument that the Liberty Korea Party has uncritically accepted. It’s telling, and yet bizarre, that groups that typically advocate “global standards” are so stubborn about maintaining the “Korean way” on the issue of protecting labor rights. But the government and the ruling party haven’t done enough to fulfill their pledge to pass the ratification motion during this session of the National Assembly.

Given this lack of progress, it’s conceivable that the motion of ratification could be automatically discarded during this parliamentary session. At the end of the National Assembly’s regular session, lawmakers will be gearing up for the general elections, which will be held in April 2020. What could be more important for lawmakers at that time than securing their party’s nomination?

Leaving 2.3 million self-employed vulnerable

In a sense, this worst-case scenario could actually be the best possible outcome. In fact, the revised version of the Labor Relations Act submitted by the government in connection with the ratification motion is dotted with loopholes. Nominally self-employed individuals who effectively depend upon a single employer — such as tutors for home curriculum programs, insurance agents, and couriers — still won’t be guaranteed the right to organize even after the law is revised and the conventions ratified.

There are an estimated 2.3 million such workers who would fall through the cracks. A strong case can also be made that other sections of the law, which bans labor unions from seizing major facilities and extend the validity period for collective bargaining agreements to three years, would violate the core conventions. That suggests it might be reasonable to further revise the law before enacting it, even if that takes a little longer.

The problem is that this hypothetical scenario isn’t practicable. Just as fierce as the pushback from the labor community is pressure from the business community, which regards the revised law as being biased toward labor unions. Furthermore, the Moon administration, as it enters its second half, is no doubt frantic to achieve some tangible results. Even if the government were to redo its revision, in other words, it would be willing to accept more of the business community’s demands.

Moreover, the EU has already requested that a panel of exports be set up on the grounds that South Korea hasn’t kept the promise it made to ratify the ILO’s core conventions when it concluded a free trade agreement with the EU. The expert panel is a mechanism for conflict resolution, under which three members (one from South Korea, one from the EU, and one from a third country) would have 90 days to review the issues and present a report containing recommendations and advice. In short, South Korea still has an “opportunity” to be humiliated as a backward country in terms of labor rights.

The National Assembly and the government are no doubt aware of all these situations, hypotheticals, and possibilities. They must know full well that sitting on their hands as they’ve been doing isn’t the answer. So we’ve got to pose the question to them: when will the National Assembly be able to ratify the ILO core conventions?

By Cho Hye-jeong, staff reporter

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

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