Thursday, October 18, 2007

Metalworker's union embraces migrants

From today' s Hankyoreh:

[Editorial] Metalworkers union’s embrace of migrant workers

The metalworkers union under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU, Minju Nochong) [as opposed to the metalworkers union under Hanguk Nochong] has decided to include migrant laborers as union members. This is something that gets your attention. Yesterday, the union’s central committee decided to conduct a comprehensive field study of migrant workers in workplaces under KCTU membership. The idea is to look into their pay and other working conditions, and see what obstacles they face in joining unions. The metalworkers union has already changed its organizational rules to allow migrant workers to join as full members, and allot a certain ratio of union positions to them.

Having migrant workers be part of the union will not only lead to improvements in the poor working conditions they face, but will also play a big role in building up the union’s negotiating power. The case of the union branch at Samu Precision Industries is a good example of how embracing migrant workers helps both Korean and migrant workers. The company had only 41 Korean union members. However, the place became a “union shop” in July, meaning that everyone becomes a member of the union when they become employees, which led to 22 migrant laborers becoming members of the union. This in turn led to significant improvements in the conditions faced by migrant workers there, and they came to enjoy more stable employment. The union’s negotiating power grew a lot as well when everyone became members.

Migrant workers in Korea still do not have the right to form labor unions. In 2005, approximately one hundred migrant workers in the Seoul-Gyeonggi-Incheon region filed the paperwork for forming a regional union, but the Ministry of Labor rejected their application. A court later sided with the workers, but the ministry has appealed and the case is awaiting a final decision from the Supreme Court. Even if they get a legal regional union, however, it will be hard for them to operate at and around actual worksites. This is why it is so significant that a union specific to an industry is trying to directly embrace migrant workers.

There are 480,000 migrant laborers working in our country right now, 3.2 percent of all paid laborers. Before you even realized it, their numbers have grown to the point where they are a pillar of our economy. Treating them in a manner consistent with internationally and universally recognized labor norms is important not only in terms of civil rights, but something also needed to make for more efficient labor. There remain some workers who have a negative view of migrant laborers, saying they are stealing jobs. However, the work that is actually being done is different, so the competition is not serious and it should be remembered that the poor treatment they receive is a factor that works against the pay levels of Korean workers. Also, it is time that employers, for their part, be proactive about improving treatment for migrant workers, as a way to increase productivity.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It is great news but I am skeptical about the good will the Metalworkers union had towards the migrant workers in changing their rules. As the article briefly mentions, it seems to me that they had no choice but to embrace the migrants in order to secure the union's leverage.

  3. It's true, I've yet to hear from many on the ground what they think about this, I will ask next time I talk to the MTU. There are many progressives in the KMWF that helped with the start of the MTU so I'm hoping it is in goodwill. How much they involve the migrants in creating union policy and if they maintain a friendly relationship with the MTU and other migrants groups may give us a good indication.