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Solidarity with jailed Korean trade unionists

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As the eyes of the world focus on South Korea for the opening day of the Winter Olympics, trade unions in the UK will be joining with those around the world to raise awareness of the systematic abuse of workers’ rights in South Korea. 

Unions are calling for the government to end the imprisonment of Han Sang-gyun, ex-President of the national union centre the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and drop the charges against the ex-General Secretary of KCTU, Lee Young-joo.

Han Sang-gyun, ex-President of the KCTU has now been imprisoned for nearly two years simply for exercising his democratic right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Han was arrested in November 2015 after leading the trade union movement in protests against the regressive labour reforms under the former Park Geun-hye government.

The TUC General Secretary wrote to the Korean Ambassador to the UK last July raising concerns of Han's imprisonment following the recommendations of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA), which called for his immediate release and compensation. The UN Working Group further requested the government of Korea to avoid the abuse of criminal proceedings in the context of peaceful protests.

However, on 31 December 2017, the ex-General Secretary of KCTU, Lee Young-joo, was arrested by the police when she left the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Party where she had been on hunger strike for ten days in protest of the amendments to the Labour Standards Act. For the last two years, Lee had been living in the KCTU office to protect her after the authorities put out an unlimited arrest warrant for her role in organising the People’s Mass Mobilisation on November 2015.  Criminal charges have been bought against Lee and she will be sent for trial between February and March.

The UK trade union movement stands in solidarity with workers in South Korea and will be calling for the immediate release of Han Sang-gyun and all charges to be dropped against Lee Young-joo.

Today (Friday 9 February), TUC President Sally Hunt is joining the International Trade Union Confederation’s global call to action on Korea. She’s leading a delegation to the South Korean embassy in London this morning, to hand in a letter to the Korean Ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Joonkook Hwang.

Korea's history of systematic abuse of trade unionists

The ITUC has rated South Korea one of the worst countries in the world for trade union rights.  Korean companies such as Samsung and LG are well known for their opposition to unions in their supply chains, with supplier companies closely monitored for any sign of workers organising. Hyundai too has engaged in union-busting in its supplier operations. South Korea was included in the ITUC's 2017 Global Rights Index, as one of the ten worst countries in the world for working people, specifically around repression of protests, discrimination and precarious work. In 2016, over 585 KCTU officers and members were arrested for their participation in various protests including a May Day demonstration.

Korea failing its obligations to meet international commitments on workers' rights

The repression trade unions are currently facing in South Korea is contrary to the commitments made by the South Korean President, His Excellency Moon Jae-in, to restore labour rights within the country. They are also a clear violation of the fundamental rights such as freedom of association and other ILO core conventions that South Korea agreed to when it signed the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement in 2010 and when it joined the OECD in 1996.

What are we calling for?

The TUC President will be meeting with officials at the South Korean embassy to call for the immediate release of Han Sang-gyun and all charges to be dropped against Lee Young-joo and for South Korea to honour the international obligations it has made to respect ILO conventions on workers’ rights.  The TUC will also be organising a rally outside the South Korean embassy to show solidarity with trade unions in South Korea and echo the call being made by trade unions around the world that their union leaders must be freed and pardoned.

Photo: Riot police clash with union members attending 2015's May Day rally in Seoul. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

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