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South Korea

For the right to organise and against neo-liberal policies

Wednesday 14 September 2005, by Pierre Rousset

Government employees, migrants... Whole sections of South Korean society do not enjoy basic rights at work, such as the right to organise, to strike and to collective bargaining. At the moment when the government is implementing neo-liberal policies, militant trade unions are being hit by repression.

In spite of the end of the military regime a decade ago and the country’s entry into the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996, the right to trade union organisation has never been fully recognised in South Korea. Trade unionists are regularly sued for “obstruction of business”.

Filling for damage compensation and provisional seizure of wages and property because of union activities continue: as of January 2004, they amounted to 110 million US dollars accross 41 workplaces! Trade union leaders are thrown in prison and the police harass the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the confederation that emerged from the anti-dictatorial struggles of the 1980s. 121 workers were indicted in 2004.

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In several sectors, free trade union organisation by workers remains forbidden or impeded. This is the case with government employees and migrants, among whom struggles have been developing for months, in the face of severe repression.

Repression of the KGEU

In November 2004, the KCTU confederation and the KGEU (Korean Government Employees’ Union) organised a general strike in opposition to the Bill on the Public Officials’ Trade Union Act, a law concerning government employees and containing anti-trade union clauses. Starting on November 9th, arrest warrants were issued for Ahn Byeong-Soon, the general secretary of the KGEU, and Kim Young-Gil, its president. Police were permanently stationed around the KCTU’s headquarters in Seoul, to arrest the leaders of the Government Employees’ Union and block its activities.

The general secretary of the KGEU was arrested on March 17th, 2005 and released on April 28th, after being detained for 44 days. He was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, the sentence being suspended for a probationary period of two years. As for the president of the KGEU, Kim Young-Gil, he was finally arrested on April 8th, 2005, after being hunted for 150 days. He was released on June 24th, after 75 days’ detention, and condemned to one year’s imprisonment, also suspended for two probationary years.

The repression of the KGEU did not only involve the arrest of its leaders and did not stop when they were freed. On June 21st and 22nd, the union organised several rallies, demanding that the government put a stop to the repression and engage in negotiations with its branch in Wonju City in the province of Gangwon.

On the second day of the mobilisation, 126 members of the KGEU were jailed, and released on June 24th. Although the rally had been legally announced, anti-riot police attacked the demonstrators, ejecting them violently, one by one, from the demonstration.

Two women fainted and one of them was left for 40 minutes without medical attention, in spite of repeated requests by her colleagues. A man who had had a back operation was manhandled, although he had informed the police of his condition. As a result he had to have six weeks of medical treatment.

The KCTU denounces the government’s “reforming” claims, which are contained in the “guidelines” on the status of government employees. It points out that the KGEU was never consulted on proposed new laws concerning them and that 1,400 employees of government departments were dismissed or pena