On April 20, 2021, South Korea completed the ratification process for three key International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions. ILO Director-General Guy Ryder welcomed the ratification as an important step forward in the development of the nation’s labor relations. However, one needs to understand that the path towards the approval of documents on protection of workers’ rights was VERY long and the final destination is yet to be reached.
And although South Korea joined the ILO in 1991, it did not adopt four of the organization’s eight core conventions, and 29 of 189 conventions overall, lagging behind international standards in protecting labor rights. Among 187 ILO member countries, 146 have adopted all eight key conventions. And out of 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 32 have ratified them all. Japan and the United States adopted only six and two conventions, respectively.
So what four conventions is the author referring to? Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize that ensures workers can establish and join organizations of their choosing as well as elect representatives to arrange their administration and activities. Amendments were made to Article 2 of South Korea’s labor laws to allow unemployed people and fired workers to join labor unions. In addition, a trade union could lose its legal status based on decisions made by the government and the courts. For instance, in 2013, the state cancelled the registration of Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union as a trade union simply because retired and dismissed workers were allowed to be its members and leaders. In addition, state employees were not allowed to join in various professional organizations.
Convention No. 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining was not in line with ROK labor laws that suppress the right of trade unions to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of their members.
Forced Labor Convention (No. 29) ensures the use of forced or compulsory labor is prohibited. However, it does not apply to any work or service exacted in virtue of compulsory military service laws for work of a purely military character or any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.
Convention No. 105 on Abolition of Forced Labor that undertakes to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labor as for instance, a punishment for having participated in strikes. It is still legal in South Korea for the security forces to carry out arbitrary arrests and detentions, which contravenes the convention. In addition, convention No. 105 that bans forced labor as a punishment for political views, contradicts the national security law.
In 2010, when the EU-South Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed, both parties made firm commitments to the International Labor Organization’s core standards. The ratification process then stalled due to objections from businesses and conservatives who must have feared that trade and workers’ unions could become too powerful.
Since 2011, when the agreement came into force, the EU has demanded that South Korea ratify the conventions. During the 2017 election campaign, Moon Jae-in claimed he was determined to ratify the conventions.
Within the EU-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, both parties made firm commitments to labor and environmental standards but the ROK did not make good on its promises.
South Korea’s government has been under pressure from the EU to ratify ILO’s fundamental conventions for two main reasons. First of all, under current conditions, the process cannot be put off any longer. Secondly, similar issues could arise in relation to free trade agreements signed with other nations. After all, consumers have become increasingly more selective about what they buy and more concerned with labor laws in countries where products and services originate from. And the aforementioned trend is reflected in free trade agreements. In fact, nine of the twelve free trade agreements South Korea has with other nations include clauses on labor rights in manufacturer-country.
The ROK seemed in no rush to ratify the ILO conventions. On April 9, 2019, European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmström talked about the importance of ratifying the ILO conventions during the 8th Trade Committee meeting between the ROK and the EU. She also said that it was important to bring South Korean labor laws in line with core ILO principles. The Commissioner also stressed the need to look into ways to resolve issues concerning the unpredictable regulatory changes, lengthy administrative procedures and discretionary enforcement that are affecting EU businesses and the investment climate in the ROK. In response, South Korea’s Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jae-gap requested more time to ensure a consensus could be reached among members of parliament.
Later on, in 2019, relevant amendment bills were introduced at the National Assembly but they did not pass due to opposition from businesses and conservatives. Afterwards, they were proposed yet again in December 2020.
On June 23, 2020, President Moon Jae-in emphasized the significance of revising South Korea’s major labor-related laws to allow the jobless and dismissed workers to join unions and improve the overall rights of employees. During the session, he also talked about the pressure from the European Union and the need for the ratification of conventions to resolve a trade dispute with the EU linked with the bilateral free trade agreement.
On July 7, 2020, the South Korean Cabinet “approved a motion to ratify three of the ILO’s key conventions” on workers’ rights. After all, any delays could lead to trade issues with the European Union. Convention No. 105 was excluded from the aforementioned list because its ratification was deemed to clash with domestic laws on labor in prison.
In a video message at ILO global summit on July 9, 2020, President Moon Jae-in talked about joining international efforts to improve the quality of life for workers, including through the ratification of the key ILO conventions and to continue with the work to reduce working hours and raise the minimum wage.
In December 2020, the National Assembly passed 10 labor-related amendment bills, including the ones aimed at making changes to laws relevant to ratifying ILO fundamental conventions on freedom of association.
On February 23, 2021, South Korea’s parliament committee on environment and labor approved the bill ratifying the three conventions and passed it to the plenary session vote. Both the ruling party and the opposition had no disagreement concerning convention No. 87. The remaining two, however, were met with fierce criticism from the opposition and were put to vote without the latter’s representatives. On February 26, the bill passed the parliament.
While large companies would like to ensure that measures to counteract the effect of the ratification are taken, trade and workers’ unions as well as leftist organizations want to ensure the remaining convention is approved and labor laws that are not in line with the ILO are amended.
Some business leaders need legislation that restricts unlawful strikes and other steps taken jointly by employees. After all, the economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in worsening problems.
The author would like once again to point out the fact that if Moon Jae-in were not a populist but a leftist, he would have started the ratification process as soon as he came to power and not in response to EU pressure. The long-awaited ratification will benefit South Korean workers whose position, despite their relative prosperity, in certain spheres has not changed substantially since the end of the military dictatorship. And when it comes the time to judge the steps taken by Moon Jae-in over the years this ratification will be definitely considered a good deed.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.