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Korean religious groups join call for labor-friendly law

Existing trade union law fails to protect workers' rights, labor groups say
South Korean workers join a protest rally for pro-labor policies and fair wages in this 2018 photo

South Korean workers join a protest rally for pro-labor policies and fair wages in this 2018 photo. (AFP)

Published: November 15, 2023 08:20 AM GMT
Updated: November 15, 2023 09:36 AM GMT

Christian and Buddhist religious leaders joined with labor groups for a fasting and prayer meeting in the South Korean capital Seoul to press the government for amendments to the nation’s trade union law to ensure protection of workers’ rights.

Leaders from the Justice and Peace Committee of the National Council of Churches of Korea (NCCK), the Social and Labor Committee of the Buddhist Order of Korea and the Labor Pastoral Committee of Seoul archdiocese joined the program on Nov. 14, the Hankyoreh newspaper reported.

The groups have called on the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol to amend the labor law during the ongoing session of the National Assembly which ends on Nov. 22.

The prayer, sit-in and a press conference were held in front the National Assembly building. The organizer said the fasting and sit-in program will continue until the end of the parliament’s current session.

Labor groups say the current Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act, enacted about 70 years ago, is “outdated” and fails to protect the rights of workers.

"[It] has not kept up with the changed reality, but rather imprisons and kills workers' rights," the labor groups said.

“Unions sued for just demands”

They also alleged the current trade union law effectively emboldens business groups and corporations who continue to sue trade unions for damages even in cases for demanding fair remuneration for workers.

"Under the current union law, subcontractors may be under pressure to sue for damages,” the groups said in a statement.

They cited the case of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering that filed a 47 billion Korean won (US$35.4 million) lawsuit against the administration of the Geoje, Tongyeong, and Goseong shipbuilding subcontractor branches of the Korean Metalworkers' Union.

The unions went on a 51-day strike last year to demand higher wages, the groups said.

They said the "workers are being burdened with tens of billions of won in damages for union activities," and emphasized that Article 3 should be amended to reasonably limit such financial burdens.

In 2014, yellow envelopes of cash were delivered to support unionized workers to pay SsangYong Motor compensation for a strike in 2009 which resulted in the unions being ordered to pay a combined 4.7 billion won in damages.

The labor groups have termed their proposed amendment to the current law as the “Yellow Envelope Bill.”

The proposal justifies strikes by subcontracted workers against their employers’ clients, even though the clients do not employ those workers directly.

In addition, management will be banned from demanding compensation for damages stemming from illegal strikes, unless they assess the damage caused by each individual.

The labor groups alleged that the current laws in South Korea do not reflect the situation of casual laborers, whose numbers have dramatically increased.

"As industrial structures and employment forms have changed dramatically, indirect employment such as dispatch and subcontracting as well as specialty employment and platform workers, have increased dramatically,” the labor groups said.

“But the law has failed to reflect this reality."

“Disastrous for Korean economy”

South Korea’s six largest business lobbies held a press conference on Nov. 13 to urge the president to use his veto to block the proposed bill, which they claimed will be disastrous for the Korean economy and industries.  

“The only way to prevent an economic crisis that the bill may bring is through the president’s veto power,” the business lobbies said in a joint statement, the Korea Times reported.

The proposed bill was not passed in the previous two assemblies between 2012 and 2020 due to fierce opposition from business leaders.

The business lobbies warned that if the bill is passed it would result in unending labor disputes for workplaces.

They also pointed out that management cannot assess the damage caused by each individual, as unionized workers tend to wear masks and cover surveillance cameras during strikes.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and other opposition parties have backed the bill while the ruling People Power Party’s (PPP) lawmakers refused to vote in favor.

Kim Gi-hyeon, a ruling party representative, urged Yoon to veto the Yellow Envelope Bill and a few other proposed amendments “for the people and the country.”

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