Korean union wins legal recognition

December 1, 1999

Korean union wins legal recognition

SEOUL — On November 23, South Korea's Ministry of Labour finally accepted the "notification of the establishment of a trade union" submitted by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. This follows four rejections on the grounds that the KCTU included a banned teachers' union (the union was unbanned on July 1) and had "dismissed workers, who are not eligible to be members of a trade union" in its elected leadership.

The KCTU was established on November 11, 1995, eight years after the explosion of workers' struggle, which produced the democratic trade union movement. The nationwide general strike from December 1996 to January 1997 pushed the KCTU forward as a force to be reckoned with.

Current and previous governments' refusal to recognise the KCTU was an attempt to weaken the new force represented by the KCTU. The victory involved years of struggle, including campaigns that won labour law changes which ended the prohibition of multiple unions and recognised the teachers' union.

Those struggles resulted in the imprisonment of many trade unionists and the dismissal of more than 2000 teachers. Two hundred teachers were imprisoned in 1989 when they organised their union. More than 3000 trade unionists have been imprisoned since 1987, when the new movement was born, and many have died as a result of brutal repression and sheer hard work.

During the media conference to announce the recognition, KCTU president Dan Byung-ho declared: "We shall continue to struggle to realise the ... democratic trade union movement ... on the foundation of the principles of independence, democracy, struggle and moral strength".

The legal recognition of the KCTU does not, however, bring freedom of association in South Korea. Some 1 million government employees are still denied the right to form or join trade unions.

More than 50% of workers in the country are employed in "irregular", "atypical" or "non-standard" jobs, and many work outside the protection of the Labour Standard Act. The majority of these are women (70% of women workers are in this category).

KCTU has resolved to reach out to these workers, as well as launching a year 2000 campaign for a 40-hour week and to campaign to transform the union structures in South Korea from enterprise unionism to industrial unionism.

[Abridged from a statement from the KCTU.]

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