The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively, but certain limitations apply to public officials and teachers. A 2015 Supreme Court decision affirmed the right of all migrant workers, including undocumented workers, to form or join a union.
The law places some restrictions on unions’ ability to organize their administration, including restricting the ability of union leaders to receive pay for time spent on union work. Laws banning education workers from engaging in certain political activities, such as joining a political party or openly endorsing a political party or candidate, also constrained unions’ abilities to advocate for their positions. The law also prohibits dismissed workers from being union members.
The law limits the right to strike, in particular for workers in “essential services.” Essential services are defined broadly and include services such as railroads, air transport, communications, water supply and other utilities, and hospitals. By law unions in essential service industries may be required to maintain 50 percent service. Individuals designated as essential by management, with input from labor unions, may not strike. The law also prohibits strikes by national and local government officials, with some exceptions for specified public servants.
By law unions must submit a request for mediation to the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) before a strike; otherwise, the strike is illegal. Strikes initiated following this period are legal if they obtain majority support from union membership. The law prohibits strikes when a dispute is referred to binding arbitration.
The law adopts a narrow interpretation of “labor dispute,” which makes strikes on many issues falling under managerial control, such as downsizing and layoffs, illegal. Strikes not specifically pertaining to labor conditions, wages, benefits, or working hours are also considered illegal. Stakeholders noted that strike procedures were overly burdensome.
The law permits workers to file complaints of unfair labor practices against employers who interfere with union organizing or who discriminate against union members. The NLRC may require employers to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The law prohibits retribution against workers who conduct a legal strike. Labor organizations noted the inability of full-time labor union officials to receive wages and onerous registration requirements for individuals involved in bargaining effectively limited legal protections against unfair labor practices.
The government generally enforced legislation related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and collective action (which includes legal strikes). Employers who violate a regulation on unfair labor practices may be imprisoned or fined). In addition, an employer can be punished for disregarding a NLRC order to reinstate a worker. The law sets penalties, in the form of fines or imprisonment, against employers who refuse or neglect to accept unions’ legitimate requests for bargaining. The law also penalizes illegal strike activities with imprisonment or a fine), depending on the offense.
Many labor organizations generally operated without government interference; however, stakeholders noted the government used overly broad criminal legal provisions, including the “obstruction of business” provisions, to justify criminal prosecutions and other extreme measures against union leaders to suppress strikes.
In May the second panel of the Supreme Court rejected further appeals by the president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Han Sang-gyun, of his July 2016 conviction on six, mostly obstruction-related, charges. The charges arose from his role in organizing a November 2015 “People’s Rally” which resulted in injuries to 76 Korean National Police personnel, obstruction of public duty of 32 police personnel, and damage to 43 police buses and 138 pieces of equipment, including torn police uniforms and vests. Han was first sentenced to five years in prison and a 500,000 won ($430) fine. This was reduced on appeal to three years in prison and a fine of 500,000 won ($444), which sentence the Supreme Court confirmed.
NGOs and labor experts noted a one-year sentence had been the norm in recent years for leading labor protests, and progressive local media noted Han’s punishment was “the stiffest sentence for a rally organizer since the country’s democratization in 1987.” The UN Special Rapporteur expressed his concern about “a trend of gradual regression on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association,” during his January 2016 visit.
In his June 2016 report, the UN Special Rapporteur noted examples of antiunion practices by companies, including: encouraging the formation of management-supported unions; undermining employee unions through various means including surveillance, threats, and undue pressure on members; disguised subcontracting to avoid selected employer responsibilities and dismissal of members; firing union leaders and workers following strike action; and assigning union leaders demeaning jobs to demoralize them. He noted employers allegedly used labor relations consultancy firms to obtain advice that facilitates the erosion of trade union rights. The International Trade Union Confederation noted similar concerns during the year, including employers imposing the choice of union on construction workers and discrimination against unionized workers at a car factory.
As of September 2016, the Migrants’ Trade Union (MTU) had approximately 1,200 members. In its first year as a recognized union, the MTU conducted organizing campaigns and training for workers. It also mobilized members to advocate for a minimum wage increase and better working conditions. Nonetheless, undocumented foreign workers still face difficulties participating in union activities due to fear of exposing themselves to arrest and deportation.