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Cablegate: The Past and Future of Labor Struggles in Korea

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RHHMUNA/CDR USPACOM HONOLULU HI
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UNCLAS SEOUL 001689

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

EAP/K FOR BOB ARMSTRONG

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ELAB PGOV PREL KS
SUBJECT: THE PAST AND FUTURE OF LABOR STRUGGLES IN KOREA


-------
SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) In a meeting with poloff on May 23, Korea Labor &
Society Institute Chairman Lee Won-bo said that labor union
leaders in Korea continue to be arrested, but reluctantly
conceded that police had legitimate reasons for doing so.
Although Korea's labor laws have undergone some serious
reform in the past two decades, labor unions remained
dissatisfied with the amount of progress and would continue
to demand further changes. According to Lee, as long as
people perceive that labor laws do not adequately protect the
worker, unions were likely to use strikes and demonstrations
as common forms of public protest to draw attention to
otherwise under-publicized issues. Lee also opined that even
the largest labor union umbrella organization would not shy
away from its propensity for strikes; contrary to what was
widely reported in the media when the new union leader took
office in January of this year. END SUMMARY.

--------------
KLSI'S MISSION
--------------

2. (SBU) Formed in the year before Korea's democratization
officially began in 1987, the Korea Labor & Society Institute
(KLSI) has transformed itself from an education center to a
think-tank. Formed by several key leaders in the labor
movement including Kim Keum-soo (current President of KLSI)
and Chun Young-se (current General Secretary of the
Democratic Labor Party), KLSI was originally named the Korea
Labor Education Association (KLEA). The original mission was
to educate a new cadre of labor union officials to begin an
era of labor movements. Their efforts culminated in the
"Great Worker's Struggle" of 1987.

3. (SBU) In May 1995, KLEA shifted gears toward research and
KLSI was born. Not coincidentally, the second largest trade
union organization in Korea, the Korean Confederation of
Trade Unions (KCTU) was formed six months later in November
1995 with the strong support of KLSI's leaders. (Note: The
largest trade union umbrella organization, the Federation of
Korean Trade Unions, or FKTU, was formed in August 1961. End
note.) With the labor union movement making good strides to
secure more rights from employers and more importantly to
secure more comprehensive legislation from the government,
the change from KLEA to KLSI was made to better serve the new
demands of the labor union members. Scholars and academics
were added to the staff and the focus shifted to informing
members about general issues of mutual concern and proposing
new labor policies to present to the central government.
KLSI is funded through member dues and revenue obtained from
sales of educational materials. KLSI has a reported 800
members and is managed by a 40-person board of advisors
representing a cross-section of civil society groups,
academics and lawyers.

------------------------
THE GREAT LABOR STRUGGLE
------------------------

4. (SBU) The labor movement of 1987 had strong connections
to the democracy movement of the same year. In this context
of political democratization, the government, which faced
strong pressures from the labor movement and opposition
parties to reform the existing legal framework for
authoritarian labor control, revised the Trade Union Act in
November 1987. The revised Trade Union Act promoted workers'
rights to organize by abolishing existing requirements and
various restrictions placed on labor unions. However, since
the revised law prohibited the establishment of multiple
unions, it was harshly criticized for the following ten years
by union activists at home and by international labor
organizations.

5. (SBU) Workers welcomed this new era of labor freedom by
joining labor unions at an unprecedented rate. Unionization
rates increased from 12.4 percent in 1985 to 18.6 percent in
1989. The number of strikes also jumped during this period
with approximately 3,500 labor conflicts between July and
September 1987 alone.

--------------------------
LABOR RELATIONS: 1987-1997
--------------------------

6. (SBU) According to KLSI's statistics, between 1987 and
1996, 2,807 union officials were arrested or indicted. The
most common grounds for these arrests were violation of the
third party provision, obstruction of business and failure to
comply with compulsory arbitration. The third party
provision stipulated that a third party organization or
individual could not interfere in a dispute between an
employer and an employee. At the time, the government felt
many labor unions and civil right's groups acted
"irresponsibly" in these matters and therefore the
legislation was designed to exclude all outside forces from
intervening in contentious labor situations.

7. (SBU) After a decade of pressure and extensive media
coverage of the arrest of union officials, the ROKG passed
the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act in March
1997. This law was a substantial and full-scale reform of
the existing legal framework to administer industrial
relations and labor markets. The Act allowed the
establishment of multiple unions, removed the provision
banning unions' political activities and third party
intervention and prohibited wage payments to full-time union
official beginning in 2002. (Note: The multiple union and
wage payment issues remain points of contention as the
enactment was once again postponed until January 2010. End
note.)

-----------------------------
LABOR RELATIONS: 1997-PRESENT
-----------------------------

8. (SBU) According to KLSI's Lee, even after the provision
banning third party intervention was repealed, police
continued to arrest union officials on other charges.
Officials continued to be arrested primarily on the grounds
that they violated the terms of compulsory arbitration or
obstructed business. Additionally, police began to use more
common provisions such as trespassing and traffic violations
in order to arrest union officials participating in
demonstrations in public areas. KLSI noted that, on average,
more than 200 union officials have been arrested every year
since 1997. Although slightly lower than the previous
decade, Lee said the detention of union officials continues
to be a serious concern for his organization and the trade
union umbrella organizations.

9. (SBU) Lee conceded that media reports were correct in
reporting that police generally refrained from arresting
union officials who participated in illegal demonstrations or
strikes as long as their actions remained peaceful.
Additionally, police tended to arrest union officials
responsible for organizing violent protests rather than the
actual participants of the protests. An example of this
occurred in 2003 when union officials responsible for
organizing an illegal hospital strike were arrested for
failing to comply with compulsory arbitration. Although
numerous hospital workers also participated in the strike,
only the union officials were arrested.

------------------
WHY UNIONS PROTEST
------------------

10. (SBU) According to Lee, labor unions protested for
several different reasons. Although some of the causes were
internal to the workplace and the worker, others had an
external element or focus. In the past 20 years of labor
struggles, the most commonly cited reasons for union
uprisings were lack of good faith on the part of the employer
and a lack of responsiveness by the ROKG to the complaints of
workers. In Lee's opinion, the majority of demonstrations
focused externally at the ROKG and labor policies in general
as opposed to internal working conditions or labor issues of
a specific workplace.

--------------
FUTURE OF KCTU

--------------

11. (SBU) Poloff inquired what the future of the KCTU was
and the probability that it would rely less on strikes as the
predominant method of interaction with the ROKG. Lee said
that although the new president of KCTU was more moderate
that past presidents, there remained a strong likelihood of
strikes in the upcoming annual wage negotiation period in
July. Despite public statements by KCTU's president Lee
Seok-haeng that he would not take lightly the decision of
whether or not to hold a strike (Seoul 306), he allegedly
meant that he will be better prepared and will work to rally
more support from KCTU affiliates throughout the country
before launching a strike. Along a more conciliatory line,
Lee apparently continues to try to build closer relationships
with several government ministries (namely the Ministry of
Construction and the Ministry of Transportation) to broaden
his contacts and influence within official circles.

-------------------------------
IMPACT OF LABOR REFORMS IN 2010
-------------------------------

12. (SBU) In December 2006, the National Assembly's Labor
Committee passed several bills, including a delay in the
implementation of multiple unions and the ban on direct pay
of union officials until 2010. The delay was justified on
the grounds that Korea's labor market was not suitably
prepared to handle the tough adjustments that will be
necessary once the laws go into effect. Despite reports that
the MOL is working to minimize the impact of the laws, Lee
said that there will be widespread confusion when the laws
take effect. Some of the questions that remained unanswered
were: How will multiple unions organize their collective
bargaining actions? How will unions finance the hefty
payroll of union officials? According to Lee, one effect
will be a stronger trend toward regional or industrial-based
unions and a continued erosion of workplace-based unions. It
also remained to be seen how the government will interact
with labor groups. If the ROKG cannot find the correct
balance between flexibility and security, or "flexicurity",
then Lee predicted that there will be even more strikes and
protests as workers voice their discontent with the new
arrangement.

-------
COMMENT
-------

13. (SBU) Although KLSI and Lee's opinions are closely and
unabashedly aligned with labor unions, his perspectives are
useful as they offer insight into the thinking of labor
unions that are often reluctant to meet with embassy
officers. Of particular note was Lee's admission that union
officials were normally arrested on legitimate legal grounds
as opposed to trumped up charges. As torch-bearers for the
broader union membership, union officials are likely to
continue to pursue public actions (demonstrations, protests
and strikes) that will draw increased attention to their
plight; actions that may often land them in jail as well.
Many union officials feel this is an obligation that goes
along with their leadership position in the union and do not
have reservations about arrest or a criminal record as these
are looked upon as badges of courage among leaders at all
levels of Korean society.
VERSHBOW

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