Wednesday, August 30, 2006

ILO Pusan: problems and prospects

Below is a quick story from the Hankyoreh about the ILO Asian Regional Meeting now underway in Busan and some short comments of my own. I was down there for the first day's worker group meeting and the special forum on the Korean situation. It was good experience.

Members of the POSCO construction worker's union were at first not allowed to enter the event but they eventually made it past the smaller than normal police corden (just about a hundred police, not the normal thousand or more for large events and rallies) and came in and joined the forum. They were accompanied by protest singers who warmed up the crowd before the speakers went on.

Besides an outline of some of the current struggles on the penninsula by Korean delegates, the worker's group of ILO made several strong statements from their fact-finding mission undertaken by international members, I hope these make some headway.

The biggest problem of the evening was that Migrant Trade Union president Anwar Hussain was threatened with deporation and arrest if he attends the conference, which he is invited to as an official KCTU delegate. Anwar did make it to Mondays event (held one day before the event officially begins) but union members were extremely concerned about his safety. Protests are currently underway and being lodged by the KCTU and Migrant supporters. Starting tomorrow there will be a rotating one person demonstration (a Korean form of protest that is used to get around legal obstacles) in front of the Mok Dong immigration office. Worker's Groups members of the ILO and international unions are also trying their best to get Anwar into the event where he was scheduled to attend the migration forum tomorrow.

From the Hankyoreh: Meeting sheds light on plight of Korean Workers

There is a meaningful event going on right now in Busan, at which participants from nations in the Asia-Pacific region are looking for ways to create better labor conditions. The Asian Regional Meeting of the International Labor Organization (ILO) takes place every four years and will continue this year until September 1. Approximately 600 representatives from labor, business, and government have come from approximately 40 countries. The event presents our society with an opportunity to think about international labor issues, but the sad realities faced by workers in Korea make you feel like international issues are concerns for other countries. It is actually turning into a time when others are learning about the lack of rights faced by Korean laborers.

A fact-finding group representing the international labor community, here in Korea on the occasion of the ILO meeting, attempted to visit the offices of the new civil servants’ union but was prevented from doing so by the Gyeonggi provincial government. The group criticized Korea for "meeting the demands of the World Trade Organization while failing to keep its promises to the International Labor Organization" and said it would report its findings to the ILO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and continue to monitor the labor situation here. Korea has failed to adopt repeated recommendations by the ILO for improving labor policy. Typical examples would be its failure to fully guarantee civil servants the "three labor rights" - freedom of association, right to bargain collectively, and the right to strike. This is one of the reasons Korea continues to be labeled a country that suppresses labor.

To make matters worse, a migrant worker who represents fellow foreign laborers in the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU, Minju Nochong) was kept away from the proceedings because he is currently an illegal alien. He was on his way to a session discussing ways to protect migrant laborers and he was an official delegate from KCTU, and the government was as unflexible and intolerant as could be in preventing him from attending. An ILO event is a rare opportunity to make your claims known to the global labor community, so the right to attend such an activity should be guaranteed within certain limits.

And so, as it turns out, the world is being shown Korea’s shameful labor policies and harsh conditions during this ILO meeting in Busan. All of this is, in turn, the result of a "policy for show" that obsesses over appearances without making substantial policy changes and improvements in labor conditions.

Nevertheless, Korea still has an opportunity to have the meeting come to an admirable end. The government should immediately begin listening to criticism from Korean and international labor organizations and demonstrate a willingness work together to resolve the issues. The world will take a new look at Korea when changes have been made, and Korean labor and the government will be able to restore mutual confidence. One hopes to see the meeting in Busan be a starting point for resolving the many labor issues Korea faces today.


  1. Was Anwar able to participate?

  2. rumour has it he was through the intervention of the icftu or another union

    not sure if he actually participated in the migration or other workshop

  3. thanks for the posting, Jamie