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Global labor leader bemoans attacks on workers' rights

By Choi Sung-jin

An international labor movement leader has expressed deep concern about situations facing Korea's unions.

Commenting on the imprisonment of Han Sang-gyun, former chairman of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), he said: "We will form a global solidarity and call for the Korean government to release Han."

Philip J. Jennings, general secretary of the UNI Global Union, made these and other remarks during a conference at the National Assembly Tuesday, organized by Rep. Lee Yong-deuk of the opposition Minjoo Party of Korea.

Jennings, the so-called global warrior of labor movements, began with talking about Han, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for organizing a rally in protest to the government's attempts to gloss over the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014.

"I seldom use this expression but the jailing of Han was a ‘shock itself,'" he said.

Stressing that Han's imprisonment is proof the Korean government is ignoring even basic labor rights, Jennings said: "We at the UNI Global Union will fight in the vanguard of international solidarity until the Korean government sets him free and ceases to aggravate its labor laws."

UNI Global Union is an international federation of industrial unions with 20 million members belonging to about 900 unions in 150 countries, mostly office workers in the financial and other service sectors. It includes 300,000 Korean laborers under the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), one of the two umbrella unions in Korea, along with the KCTU.

Rep. Lee, a former labor leader, agreed. "Korea's labor conditions have rapidly deteriorated under the two conservative governments," he said. "Korea's economic size is almost 10th largest in the world but the nation is almost at the bottom in international labor standards, about which we feel very ashamed."

Jennings took issue with what he sees as the Park Geun-hye administration's coercive introduction of a performance-based pay system and two major labor guidelines that are likely to hurt the spirit of the Labor Standard Act _ easier dismissal and easing of conditions for changing employment rules to workers' disadvantage.

"These sets of government guidelines will never go in the direction of making the Korean economy more equal," he said. "Korea is moving toward another winter, during which this country will hardly be able to solve the problems of widespread poverty, income inequality and youth unemployment."

If and when the government's labor guidelines go into effect, they will cause confusion in all areas of society, Jennings said.

Meanwhile, the tightened controls on labor unions by conservative governments and unfavorable reports by mainstream media outlets seem to have combined to aggravate public sentiment about unionism, union leaders here say.

According to a recent labor survey by Research & Research, at the request of the Federation of Korean Industries, a lobby group for family-run conglomerates, 60.5 percent of 700 respondents said they do not support the strikes by shipbuilding workers in protest at ongoing industrial restructuring. Nearly a similar share, 59.2 percent, also opposed walkouts by financial workers to protest against the compulsory introduction of the performance-based pay system.

Asked to cite the major problems of trade unions, the largest share of 32.4 percent cited some unreasonable practices among "labor aristocrats," especially their attempts to hand over jobs to their children, followed by violent rallies (27.6 percent) and selfish tactics working only for unionists (18.6 percent).

As the issues labor unions should focus on, 41.9 percent pointed to efforts to narrow wage gaps between large and small businesses and between regular and non-regular workers. Next came solving the youth unemployment problem (22.1 percent), improving the confrontational labor-management relationship (16.6 percent) and raising labor productivity (16.2 percent), the survey showed.

On the question of unions' contribution to economic development, 28 percent said "yes," 30.6 percent said "no" and 39.1 percent said "so-so." As to whether unions contribute to social integration, 27.2 percent said "yes," 34 percent "no" and 37.1 percent "so-so."

On the other hand, 39.1 percent of respondents said unions contribute to easing social inequality, followed by 31.5 percent who expressed partial agreement and 27 percent who made negative replies.

However, 43.2 percent of those surveyed saw unions as responsible for the high jobless rate of young people, compared with 23.7 percent who didn't think so.


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