Section 7. Worker Rights
Workers do not have the right to form or join independent unions, bargain collectively, or strike. No information was available regarding labor organizations other than those created and controlled by the government. While the law stipulates employees working for foreign companies may form trade unions and foreign enterprises must provide conditions for union activities, the law does not protect workers who might attempt to engage in union activities from employer retaliation, nor does it provide penalties for employers who interfere in union activities. The constitution stipulates the freedom of assembly for citizens, but this right was not protected in practice. Unlawful assembly may result in five years of correctional labor.
The WPK purportedly represents the interests of all labor. The WPK Central Committee directly controlled several labor organizations in the country, including the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea and the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea. Operating under this umbrella, unions functioned according to a classic Stalinist model, with responsibility for mobilizing workers to support production goals and for providing health, education, cultural, and welfare facilities, but did not provide a means for worker expression.
The government controlled all aspects of the formal employment sector, including assigning jobs and determining wages. Joint ventures and foreign-owned companies were required to hire employees from government-vetted lists. The government organized factory and farm workers into councils, which purportedly afforded a mechanism for workers to provide input into management decisions.
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The government did not enforce the law and mobilized the population for compulsory labor on construction and other projects. “Reformatory labor” and “re-education through labor,” sometimes of entire families, were common punishments for political offenses. Forced and compulsory labor in such activities as logging, mining, tending crops, and manufacturing continued to be the common fate of political prisoners. Penalties for forced labor were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes such as kidnapping and were not applied.
The law requires all citizens of working age to work and “strictly observe labor discipline and working hours.” There were numerous reports that farms and factories did not pay wages or provide food to their workers. Forced labor continued to take place in the brick making, cement manufacturing, coal mining, gold mining, logging, iron production, agriculture, and textile industries. The Walk Free Foundation in its 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that one of every 10 individuals, or approximately 2.6 million persons, in the country were in situations of modern slavery.
On July 28, 2021, the UN secretary-general reported that the economy “continues to be organized in a way that relies on the widespread extraction of forced labor, including from conscripted soldiers and the general populace, including children” (see also section 7.c.). In June RFA reported the government was forcing nearly 14,000 married women from all regions of the country to “volunteer” for farm work in South Hwanghae Province to boost food output after the 2020 suspension of border trade with China cut off food imports and the country endured a bad harvest. In July RFA reported the government forcibly mobilized married women in Ryanggang Province, near the river bordering China, to make cement blocks for the construction of a wall to prevent escape and stop the smuggling of food and other goods that had escalated after the government’s border closure caused price spikes in 2020. The schedule required those ranging “from newlywed women in their 20s to those in their 60s” to transport enough sand from the mountains each day to mix with cement and produce 10 blocks, for the wall to be built by October 10, the Party Foundation Day deadline.
According to reports from an NGO, during the implementation of short-term economic plans, factories and farms increased workers’ hours and asked workers for contributions of grain and money to purchase supplies for renovations and repairs. By law failure to meet economic plan goals may result in two years of “labor correction.” In 2019 workers who were reportedly required to work at enterprises assigned by the government received no compensation or were undercompensated by the enterprises. In 2020 women in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, reported that government officials required all women in the area to work daily on construction and other projects. Those physically unable to work had to pay a monetary fine, and security forces arrested evaders.
The 2019 UN report The Price Is Rights noted work “outside the State system, in the informal sector, has become a fundamental means to survival [but] access to work in the informal sector has become contingent on the payment of bribes.” In addition, NGOs and media reported that stricter border and internal travel restrictions, due to government fears concerning the spread of COVID-19, made it extremely difficult for persons to pursue a living through informal trading. The HRNK’s 2020 report entitled Imagery Analysis of Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongo-ri, Update 3 detailed the use of forced labor by prison officials in the production of false eyelashes.
According to NGO Open North Korea’s 2016 report Sweatshop, North Korea, individuals ages 16 or 17 from the low-loyalty class were assigned to 10 years of forced labor in military-style construction youth brigades. One worker reportedly earned 120 won (less than $0.15) per month. During a 200-day labor mobilization campaign in 2016, for example, these young workers worked as many as 17 hours per day. State media boasted that the laborers worked in subzero temperatures. One laborer reported conditions were so dangerous while building an apartment building that at least one person died each time a floor was added. Loyalty class status also determined lifelong job assignments, with the lowest classes relegated to dangerous mines.
HRW reported the government operated regional, local, or subdistrict-level “labor training centers” where detainees were forced to work for short periods doing hard labor, with little food and subject to abuse, including regular beatings. Authorities reportedly sent individuals to such centers if they were suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or were unemployed. In 2018 the HRNK reported that thousands of citizens including children were detained in prison-like conditions in these centers and suggested that satellite imagery indicated the number and size of such camps were expanding.
The vast majority of North Koreans employed outside the country were in Russia and China. Workers were also reportedly in Georgia (in Abkhazia, a Russia-occupied region), Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Laos, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Syria, and Tanzania. While some places removed most or all of these workers during the year, reports suggested that some places either took no action or issued work authorizations or other documentation, allowing these individuals to work.
Numerous NGOs noted workers abroad were subjected to forced labor. NGO reports indicated the government managed these laborers as a matter of state policy and that they were under constant and close surveillance by government security agents. Laborers worked between 12 and 16 hours per day, and sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. Employers stated the average wage was 270,000 to 900,000 won per month ($300 to $1,000), but in most cases employing firms paid salaries directly to the government, which took between 70 percent and 90 percent of the total earnings, leaving approximately 90,000 won ($100) per month for worker take-home pay. The state reportedly withheld some wages in certain instances until the laborers returned home after the completion of their three-year contracts. Workers reportedly worked in a range of industries, including but not limited to apparel, construction, footwear manufacturing, hospitality, information technology services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits work by children younger than age 16 and restricts children 16 to 17 from working in hazardous conditions. The law criminalizes forced child labor, but observers did not know whether that included all the worst forms of child labor. There were reports that forced child labor occurred, including the worst forms of child labor. NGOs reported government officials held thousands of children and forced them to work in labor camps with their parents.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar serious crimes such as kidnapping but were not applied. Officials occasionally sent schoolchildren to work in factories or fields for short periods to assist in completing special projects, such as snow removal on major roads or meeting production goals. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child noted children were also sometimes subjected to mass mobilizations in agriculture away from their families, with long working hours per day, sometimes for periods of a month at a time, and work under hazardous conditions. HRW previously published students’ reports that their schools forced them to work without compensation on farms twice a year for one month each time. HRW also reported schools required students under the minimum working age to work to raise funds for faculty salaries and maintenance costs for school facilities. According to 2019 media reports, students ages 14 and 15 were required to work in WPK opium fields.
On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR reported that orphans and street children were vulnerable to child labor, including deployment to permanent “shock brigades” for extended periods without pay. The OHCHR noted that children ages 16 and 17 were not legally protected against hazardous labor and cited August state media reporting that more than 200,000 youth league officials and members had taken part in “youth shock brigade activities” since April. Citing state media reporting in May that more than 160 orphans who graduated from secondary school volunteered to work at coal mines and farms to “repay the love the Workers’ Party of Korea showed for taking care of them over the years,” the OHCHR expressed concern that orphans had to volunteer to work to “repay” the care they had received from the state, which was the state’s human rights obligation. The OHCHR declared that “the use of child labor involving those under 18 years of age in harmful and hazardous environments such as coal mines are considered the worst forms of child labor and are prohibited under international law.”
In May state-run media reported that hundreds of children, apparently teenagers, “volunteered” to perform manual labor for the state in coal mines, factories, farms, and forests and that more than 700 orphans who had graduated from middle schools “volunteered” to work on cooperative farms, at an iron and steel complex, and in forestry, among other areas. HRW stated the reality of such “volunteer” work was “backbreaking labor under extremely harsh and dangerous conditions for long periods of time with little or no pay” that “very few people can turn down.”
Children ages 16 and 17 were enrolled in military-style youth construction brigades for 10-year periods and subjected to long working hours and hazardous work. Students suffered from physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion, and growth deficiencies resulting from required forced labor.
While the law provides that all citizens “may enjoy equal rights in all spheres of state and public activities” and all “able-bodied persons may choose occupations in accordance with their wishes and skills,” the law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race, religion, ethnicity, or other factors. There is no direct reference to employment discrimination in the law; classification based on the songbun loyalty system has a bearing on equal employment opportunities and equal pay.
Despite the law’s provision for women of equal social status and rights, societal and legal discrimination against women continued. Labor laws and directives mandate sex segregation of the workforce, assigning specific jobs to women while impeding access of others to these jobs. Women’s retirement age is set at age 55, compared with age 60 for men, which also has material consequences for women’s pension benefits, economic independence, and access to decision-making positions.
Persons with disabilities also faced employment discrimination. Most of the approximately 1,200 workshops or light factories for persons with disabilities built in the 1950s were reportedly no longer operational; there were limited inclusive workplaces.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: There is no legal minimum wage in the country. No reliable data were available on the minimum wage paid by state-owned enterprises. Wages were sometimes paid at least partially in kind rather than in cash.
The law stipulates an eight-hour workday, although some sources reported that laborers worked longer hours, perhaps including additional time for mandatory study of the writings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The law provides all citizens with a “right to rest,” including one day’s rest per week (Sunday), paid leave, holidays, and access to sanitariums and rest homes funded at public expense. No information was available, however, regarding the state’s willingness and ability to provide these services.
Mandatory participation in mass events on holidays and practice sessions for such events sometimes compromised leave or rest from work. Workers were often required to “celebrate” at least some part of public holidays with their work units and were able to spend an entire day with their families only if the holiday lasted two days. Failure to pay wages was common and reportedly drove some workers to seek income-generating activity in the informal or underground economy.
Occupational Safety and Health: The law recognizes the state’s responsibility for providing modern and hygienic working conditions. The law criminalizes the failure to heed “labor safety orders” pertaining to worker safety and workplace conditions only if the conditions result in the loss of lives or other “grave loss.” Workers themselves do not have a designated right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions. No information was available on enforcement of occupational safety and health laws.
Many worksites were hazardous, and the industrial accident rate was high. Managers were often under pressure to meet production quotas and often ignored training and safety requirements. According to reports, in March 2021 three untrained teenage workers died and several were critically injured in an industrial accident at the Sungri Motor Complex in South Pyongan Province. Also in March at least 20 individuals who were part of a “storm trooper” construction brigade died in an electrical fire at their Pyongyang jobsite.
Informal Sector: The informal sector is large, but there is little information on its size or composition. Many citizens depend on the informal economy for their survival as regular wages and rations are not sufficient. The informal sector has been growing rapidly, but during the year there were signs that the government increased efforts to tighten its regulatory control.
Section 7. Worker Rights
The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, conduct strikes within strict limits, and bargain collectively, but certain limitations apply.
The law recognizes most workers’ right to strike. Labor and employers in businesses deemed to be “essential services” are required to agree on a plan to maintain a minimum level of services for the public interest during a strike. Essential services include railroads, air transport, communications, water supply, and hospitals. The trade union law prohibits the use of replacement workers to conduct general business disrupted by legal strikes, but in essential services employers may hire replacements for up to 50 percent of striking workers.
By law parties involved in a “labor dispute” must first undergo third-party mediation through the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) before registering to strike. Strikes initiated following this period are legal if they obtain majority support from union membership. The law narrowly defines “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 illegal. Participating in strikes falling outside of the legally prescribed definition may result in imprisonment or a fine for the organizers and participants.
Laws banning education workers from engaging in certain political activities, such as joining a political party or openly endorsing a political party or candidate, constrained unions’ abilities to advocate for their positions. An amended law took effect in July allowing dismissed workers to maintain their union membership. The previous administration had used this rule to decertify or prevent legal recognition of unions with dismissed workers among their ranks, namely the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union and the Korean Government Employees Union. Both unions regained legal recognition under the current administration.
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 law prohibits retribution against workers who strike legally, and the NLRC may order employers to reinstate workers fired for lawful union activities.
The government generally enforced legislation related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and collective action, including legal strikes, and the penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. In addition, an employer may be penalized for noncompliance with a labor relations commission order to reinstate a worker. The law sets penalties in the form of fines or imprisonment against employers who refuse unions’ lawful requests for bargaining.
Labor organizations generally operated without government interference.
Some “dispatched workers” (those on temporary contracts) said they faced increased risk of nonrenewal of their work contract if they joined unions or engaged in industrial disputes. Some undocumented foreign workers avoided participating in union activities due to fear of exposing themselves to arrest and deportation.
The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally enforced the law effectively but did not consistently identify cases of forced labor; penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
NGOs continued to report that some migrant workers were subject to forced labor, particularly those who had incurred thousands of dollars in debt for payment of recruitment fees, making them vulnerable to debt bondage. Some migrant workers in the agriculture, livestock, and fishing industries faced conditions indicative of forced labor, including deceptive recruiting practices, confiscation of passports, and nonpayment of wages.
The Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries issued rules in January to better regulate the recruitment system, prevent excessive working hours, set a minimum salary, and ensure the provision of necessities such as clean drinking water for migrant seafarers who worked aboard Korean deep-sea fishing vessels. NGOs reported harsh conditions for migrant seafarers, including some who endured 18-hour workdays and physical and verbal abuse from Korean captains and other crew. NGOs also called for stricter enforcement and penalties for violators.
Stakeholders reported that enforcement activities were limited by jurisdictional disputes between the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
The government also investigated instances of abuse, including forced labor, against workers with intellectual disabilities.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law provides a minimum age for employment of 15 but has an exception for work by children younger than 15 if they have an authorization certificate from the Ministry of Employment and Labor. Authorities issued few such certificates for full-time employment because education is compulsory through the end of middle school. Children ages 15 to 18 may work with the consent of at least one person with parental authority or a guardian, for limited hours and are prohibited from night work. Workers younger than age 18 may not work in employment that is detrimental to their health or “morality.” Employers in industries considered harmful or hazardous to a minor’s morals or health may not hire them and face fines or imprisonment for violations.
The maximum penalty for child labor, three years’ imprisonment, was not commensurate with that for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping, which is penalized by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but prosecutors could apply other criminal statutes in such a case. Through September the government reported no violations of child labor laws. The government generally effectively enforced the law.
There were some reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6, Children).
The law prohibits discrimination in employment or occupation based on gender, nationality, social status, age, religion, or disability. No law explicitly prohibits discrimination based on race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, language or HIV or other communicable disease status. The penalties for employment discrimination were commensurate with laws related to similar violations. The law prohibits companies with more than 30 employees from asking job applicants about family members, place of origin, marital status, age, or property ownership.
The law provides for equal pay for equal work. The government inconsistently enforced the law, and discrimination occurred with respect to gender. The gender pay gap was 35.9 percent in 2020. Workers’ rights groups attributed the gap to women’s childcare and household responsibilities. A higher percentage of women filled lower-paying, low-skilled, contract jobs, and women often faced difficulties returning to the workforce after childbirth. During the COVID-19 pandemic, tasks such as handling virtual schooling for children or taking care of sick family members often fell to women. Legal restrictions against women in employment included limits on working hours, occupations, and tasks. In particular, the law restricted women’s participation in “hazardous” occupations such as mining.
The workplace antibullying law requires employers to take action to fight bullying in the workplace. According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 70 percent of persons surveyed in 2018 said they had been bullied at work. By law employers convicted of failing to take action to protect bullied employees face a fine and up to three years in prison.
The law prohibits discrimination against subcontracted (also known as “dispatched”) and temporary workers, who comprised approximately one-third of all wage workers and were found especially in the electronics, automotive, and service sectors. The International Labor Organization noted that the disadvantaged status of irregular workers contributed to discrimination against women given that women were overrepresented among these workers.
Discrimination in the workplace occurred against persons with HIV/AIDS, women, persons with disabilities, and migrant workers.
Many migrant workers faced workplace discrimination. The maximum length of stay permitted under the Employee Permit System is four years and 10 months, just under the five years needed to apply for permanent residency. NGOs and civil society groups asserted this policy is designed to exclude foreign workers from permanent residence or citizenship eligibility. NGOs stated it remained difficult for migrant workers to change employers (see sections 7.b. and 7.e.).
The law prohibits recruiters, agents, employers, or managers from receiving money or other valuables or benefits from job seekers or employees in exchange for securing employment. Nevertheless, NGOs reported Republic of Korea-flagged vessel owners routinely demanded security deposits from foreign crewmembers to discourage them from transferring jobs. New regulations issued in January require employers to bear the costs of recruitment fees and set a minimum wage, but NGOs said the regulations were not clearly drafted to include any preboarding costs, such as security deposits.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: During the year the minimum wage increased 1.5 percent and was above the official poverty line.
The law allows a flexible system under which employees may work more than eight hours during certain days and more than 40 hours per week during certain weeks (up to a maximum of 52 hours in a single week), so long as average weekly work hours for any two-week period do not exceed 40 hours and workers have a mandatory day of rest each week. For employers who adopt a flexible system, hours exceeding 80 in a two-week period constitute overtime. Foreign companies operating in export-processing zones are exempt from labor regulations that mandate one day of rest a week. The law limits overtime of ordinary workers to 12 hours a week. Standards for working and rest hours and paid leave do not apply to seafarers; overtime pay standards apply to fishermen on coastal fishing vessels, but not to those deep-sea fishing vessels. The annual ministerial notification set a minimum wage for Korean crewmembers but not migrant crewmembers, who, according to an NGO, earned just one-fifth of the Republic of Korea minimum wage.
Unions said that during the COVID-19 pandemic there were almost no reported violations of overtime laws. Official statistics showed 566,000 workers held second “side jobs” as of July, working as drivers, couriers, or in service jobs to cover or supplement living expenses. In June and October, delivery workers held nationwide strikes protesting long hours and strenuous work conditions that led to the deaths of 16 delivery workers in 2020.
The government generally effectively enforced laws on wages and acceptable conditions of work in most sectors, but migrants faced discriminatory laws and practices. The Labor Ministry was responsible for enforcement of these laws and the number of labor inspectors was sufficient to deter violations in most sectors. Inspectors had the authority to identify unsafe conditions, conduct unannounced visits, and issue corrective orders. Penalties for violations included imprisonment and fines and were generally commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
Regulations outline legal protections for migrant and foreign workers. Inspections covered businesses with foreign workers, particularly in the agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and construction sectors, which generally had poor working conditions. Migrants’ rights advocates noted the government inspected only a small percentage of workplaces that hire migrant workers and asserted that employers were not deterred from violating labor standards because most inspections were perfunctory and, even if violations were found, the typical result was a corrective order.
NGOs and local media reported discrimination against workers who do not have full-time, permanent employment and who do not receive benefits at the same level as permanent workers. For example, while the law requires the conversion to permanent status of those employed longer than two years, employers often laid off irregular workers shortly before the two-year mark. To address this the government provides subsidies and tax breaks to encourage businesses to hire temporary workers on a permanent basis, according to the labor ministry.
Migrant workers faced multiple restrictions on employment mobility, which left them vulnerable to exploitation. NGOs continued to push for changes to the employment permit system to allow migrant workers the freedom to change employers. Migrant workers generally must obtain the consent of their current employers to switch jobs or can request a change based on very limited circumstances beyond their control. The Ministry of Labor in April added unacceptable employer-provided housing (e.g., vinyl greenhouses) as another reason workers could request a change in workplace under this structure, which also includes overdue or nonpayment of wages, sexual assault, a workplace accident, and others. Workers’ rights NGOs noted the burden was on the worker to present evidence of the mistreatment to avail themselves of these provisions, making it very difficult to switch jobs without the employer’s consent.
A December 2020 Reuters report found 522 Thai migrant workers had died in the Republic of Korea since 2015, based on documents obtained from the Thai Embassy in Seoul. Forty percent of the deaths were from unknown causes, and 60 percent were health-related, accidents, or suicides. The Thai Embassy estimated only a tenth of the 185,000 Thai migrants held legal status in the country. Media and NGOs claimed a flawed employment permit system places migrant workers in precarious situations.
To prevent violations and improve working conditions for migrant and foreign workers, the government provided preemployment training to newly arrived foreign workers, workplace adaptation training to those who changed workplaces, and training to employers who hired foreign workers. In April the law was amended to require all employers of foreign workers under the employment permit system to receive training on labor laws and human rights. The government funded 45 foreign workers support centers nationwide to provide foreign workers with counseling services in 16 languages, Korean language and cultural programs, shelter, and free health-care services. It also ran a call center to help foreign workers resolve grievances. The government also funded multicultural family and migrant plus centers to provide foreign workers, international marriage immigrants, and other multicultural families with a one-stop service center providing immigration, welfare, and education services.
The law requires severance payments to migrant workers who have worked in the country for at least one year. Many workers, however, reported difficulty in receiving severance pay prior to their departure and stated they did not receive payments even after returning to their country of origin, due to banking regulations and delinquent employers. NGOs confirmed many departing migrants never received these payments and that the COVID-19 pandemic magnified these difficulties.
Some NGOs reported migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation because the law excludes regulations on working hours, holidays, and benefits for the agricultural, livestock, and fisheries industries that had large numbers of migrant workers. Foreign laborers sometimes faced physical abuse and exploitation by employers in the form of longer working hours, fewer days off, and lower wages than their local counterparts. According to NGOs, the government only occasionally investigated reports of poor or abusive working conditions for migrants, and court cases were often dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
Surveys show nearly all migrant workers lived in housing provided by their employers. In the farming and fisheries sector, 70 percent reported living in makeshift structures made of assembled panels, containers, or structures covered with vinyl sheeting. After a Cambodian worker was found dead in December 2020 in a vinyl greenhouse with a malfunctioning heating unit, the Labor Ministry announced in January it would no longer issue employment permits to employers in the agriculture and fisheries industries who house foreign workers in makeshift structures. This took effect in other industries in July, although NGOs claimed the government granted some employers a grace period until September.
Occupational Safety and Health: The Korea Occupational Health and Safety Agency, under the supervision of the Ministry of Employment and Labor, established occupational health and safety standards and worked to identify unsafe working conditions. Under the law workers in every sector have the right to remove themselves from situations of danger without jeopardizing their employment. In addition to broad reforms in 2020 to occupational health and safety law, including increased penalties for workplace fatalities and health and safety violations, in January the government announced even stricter penalties for certain industrial accidents. In January the National Assembly passed the Serious Accident Punishment Act, which, when it takes effect in January 2022, will require stricter compliance from business owners and place responsibility for accident prevention on CEOs.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor had 815 health and safety inspectors and conducted 12,097 workplace inspections from January to July, an increase compared with the same period last year.
The government enforced the law, and penalties for violations were commensurate with those for analogous crimes such as gross negligence. According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, there were 108,379 industrial accidents in 2020, similar to 2019, and 2,062 occupational deaths. The leading causes of workplace deaths were falls and accidents involving equipment in the construction and manufacturing sectors. The ministry acknowledged that challenges remained in further reducing the level of fatal accidents to that on par with other advanced countries; ensuring the safety of workers vulnerable to occupational accidents or health risks, including older workers, women, migrants, and those working in small workplaces; and reducing safety gaps between large enterprises and small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as between parent companies and subcontractors. Workers’ rights advocates said that contract or temporary workers were also vulnerable to workplace injury.
The country has a high industrial death rate. For example, steelmaker POSCO has reported 14 workplace fatalities in the past three years. In February a subcontractor was killed while replacing a conveyor roller at the POSCO steelworks in Pohang. One month later, a subcontractor for an affiliated company died in a similar incident at the same plant. The February incident prompted the Labor Ministry to conduct a two-month inspection of the Pohang plant. It fined POSCO $395,000 for 225 safety-rule breaches.