Corea, República de - Crackdown on unions and increasing use of lawsuits (2012)

According to reports, compensation being claimed by management over labour disputes is increasing despite an agreement eight years ago between labour and management restricting large indemnification suits after a series of workers suicides had resulted from large lawsuits. Several trade unionists were in jail in 2011 for strike related activity.

In an examination of five large workplaces facing labour-management disputes, the total amount of compensation claims amounted to around 75 billion won (USD69,4 million). This included 30,1 billion won claimed by KEC, 17,9 billion claimed by Kumho Tyres, around 20 billion claimed by Hyundai Motor and its in-house subcontractors, 2 billion claimed by JEI, and 5,377 billion by Hanjin Heavy Industries (including a 96 million won fine against a single union member Kim Jin-suk, who led a crane top protest for much of 2011). Around 910 union leaders and members have been targeted by the claims.

KEC requested 30,1 billion won in damages even after establishing a collective agreement not to collect compensation. The companies that have claimed damages argue that they have suffered major losses due to illegal activities by the unions and that they are following proper procedure in requesting damages and attachments. However, many union officials are reportedly losing personal property and suffering depression as a result. In 2003, Doosan Heavy Industries worker, Bae Dal-ho, committed suicide by self-immolation, protesting the injustice of compensation claims while in October 2003, two union heads took their own lives, Kim Ju-ik at Hanjin Heavy Industries and Lee Hae-nam at Sewon Tech.

Underlying the proliferation of compensation claims is the difficulty workers face in holding legal strikes. All substantive strike efforts are regarded as “illegal”, and companies use this illegality as a pretext for taking legal action. In February, Hanjin Heavy Industries undertook restructuring efforts that resulted in 400 lost jobs, including 230 voluntary resignations and 170 dismissals - a strike in response was declared illegal. In-house subcontracting workers at Hyundai Motor carried out a strike asking for conversion to regular employee status in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling, but this too was ruled illegal.

The interpretation from the government and the courts is that restructuring, privatisation, layoffs etc. fall under the category of management rights and therefore strikes to prevent them are not permitted. According to Kwon Du-seop, a lawyer with the KCTU Law Centre, workplace damage claims are primarily being used to suppress the right to strike and to crack down on unions. Concerns also remain over courts favouring management during lawsuits.

On 24 June, the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) Assistant General Secretary, Fernando Lopes, joined a delegation that visited the National Assembly to report about recent, extensive violence against trade unions in Korea.

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