GENEVA — A major world trade union body has accused South Korea and Thailand of widespread suppression of workers' rights. The International Metalworkers' Federation (IMWF) has called on the United Nations' International Labour Organisation (ILO) to refuse to admit South Korea unless it formally pledges to observe the body's conventions.
Workers and their unions in South Korea, IMWF general secretary Marcello Malentacchi said in a letter to the ILO released on November 10, were subject "to relentless harassment by the government, the security police and employers.
"South Korea now has the highest number of worker representatives in prison of any country in the world. Attempts to organise free trade unions in companies such as Hyundai, Daewoo and Samsung have met with repression", he added.
The three companies, which produce a wide range of industrial and consumer goods, are increasingly emerging on world markets.
Malentacchi's letter, addressed to ILO director-general Michel Hansenne, was timed for the UN body's Asian regional conference in Bangkok from November 26 to December 3.
Labour affairs analysts in Geneva said it reflected growing concern among moderate international union groupings that the perception that market economics had triumphed over Communism created a serious threat to workers' rights.
"With all the praise being heaped on the so-called dragons of South-east Asia for their economic successes, unions see a clear danger that the way they treat their workers will be forgotten", one analyst said.
Denis MacShane, director of communications for the IMWF, which groups unions with 16 million members in five continents, said there were 250 to 300 South Korean union activists in jail at any one time.
"As fast as they release some, they take in others", he said. MacShane said South Korea had taken over from the Soviet Union and South Africa as the state with the worst record for jailing workers.
The Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions — which long tussled for influence with the now defunct Soviet-aligned World Federation of Free Trade Unions — has also formally complained to the ILO over Thailand's record.
An ILO spokesperson said the complaint, similar to the IMWF charges, was under study by the UN body's committee monitoring members' observance of the organisation's charter.
Thanong Po-arn, president of the Labour Congress of Thailand, one of the country's six labour confederations, is still missing and feared appearance on June 19. Thanong is also the ICFTU's Asia-Pacific region vice-president. The ICFTU has asked its affiliates to "explore measures to withhold or withdraw trade and other advantages from Thailand while it continues to violate basic human rights".
Thanong's disappearance has been linked to the February 23 military coup in Thailand, which introduced a range of anti-union measures. Soon after the coup, unions were banned in state enterprises, and other unions were placed under wide-ranging restrictions. Before the coup, there were 300,000 union members; now there are an estimated 160,000, representing just 2% of Thailand's non-agricultural workforce.
Thai unionists have asked those concerned about Thanong Po-arn's disappearance to write to the Thai government to express concern and demand action to solve the case. Letters should be addressed to: Mr. Anand Panyarachun, Prime Minister, Government House, Pra-Nakorn, Bangkok, Thailand.
[From reports on Apakabar/Pegasus and the Hong Kong-based Asian Labour Update.]