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Korea: A Republic of Strike?

The recent strike of the Korean Railway Workers’ Union, which started on September 27, has not yet reached a consensus. As the strike extends, the disagreement between employers and the labor union is becoming more pronounced. Although a strike should be valued as one of the basic rights of laborers, it is also true that it demands some sacrifices during the process. In this article, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) investigates the brief notion of a strike and controversies surrounding it, especially focusing on the cases in Korea, and suggests ways to resolve the conflicts between employers and workers by exploring some exemplary models from other countries.

What is a strike?

According to the National Institute of the Korean Language, a strike is a situation in which laborers cease their works together to improve their working conditions, or to attain certain political goals. The former is called an “economic strike,” and the latter a “political strike.” While there are many methods workers can utilize to put pressure on employers, such as picketing, slowdowns (an intentional decline in output), and boycotts, strikes are regarded as the final method. Article 33 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea guarantees the workers’ right to go on a strike: “To enhance working conditions, workers shall have the right of independent association, collective bargaining, and collective action.” First, “independent association” ensures laborers’ rights to form a group freely. Then, they can negotiate with executives, which is often called “collective bargaining.” Finally, “collective action” means that if this negotiation does not go well, employees can act together to convey their requirements. These three rights are called “labor’s three primary rights.”

Strikes in Korea

The very first modern strike in Korea is known to have been held in 1898 by longshoremen in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, protesting against the exploitation of Japanese capitalists. Considering that the Joseon Dynasty was under Japanese colonial rule at the time, this movement exhibited anti-Japanese characteristics. Since then, strikes in Korea have shown greater political tendencies than those in foreign countries.

The fact that strikes in Korea tend to be related to political movements induces more disputes over their appropriateness. According to a survey by the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), 59.2% of the respondents said that they opposed the recent strike of labor union in public institutions. Furthermore, the public also showed contrasting opinions towards labor unions, the main subject of the strike. To a question asking “what image _rst comes to your mind when you hear the term ‘labor union?’ ” many respondents answered with “representative of laborers.” Nonetheless, the public’s cynical attitutde towards strikes also exists and it is shown by the second and third most popular answers, which were “disputes” and “the class with vested interests,” respectively. Mass media coverage can be one of the main factors contributing to this negative perception. The analysis of news reports of nine broadcasting companies up to September 27 suggested that 65% of them focused on the inconvenience of the citizens and 10% concentrated on the illegality of the strikes. Many of them failed to convey balanced.

Source: Federation of Korean Industries, 2016

Different Approaches to Strikes in Korea

Strikes have been a controversial issue in the Korean labor market, leading to diverse viewpoints on this matter.

Employer’s Position

Strikes as a Measure to Maintain the Privileges of the Labor Union

In Korea, most labor unions are formed in large companies and public institutes rather than in small and medium-sized companies. There is also a tendency for labor unions to be composed of high- income workers. They are even stigmatized as “aristocratic labor unions,” which implies that unions are only concerned with their own interests. In addition, some also point out that strong labor unions can be a cause of the high youth unemployment rate in Korea. Many labor unions in large companies bargain with their managers to assure job positions for the children of union members. For example, KIA Motors has a policy to recruit 25% of the final interviewees within the immediate families of retired employees and long tenured employees who worked for more than 25 years. These practices, which are against fair competition among applicants, make the public question the adequacy of the intent and necessity of the strike.

Source: Ministry of Employment and Labor, 2015

• Damages Brought by Strikes

The social losses caused by strikes are tremendous. In 2014, the economic value of decreased working days is estimated to have reached about \3.4 trillion. Due to the fact that the figure only counts the average output per worker who participates in strikes, the actual loss is estimated to be much higher. This is because the partial number of workers who participate in strikes cause additional decline in productivity for workers who are not on strike. Not only can strikes harm the entrepreneurs, but they also negatively affect local economy and national competitiveness.

Worker’s Position

• Large Disparity of Power between Workers and Employers

Many labor unions argue that the power of labor unions in Korea is still weak compared to the global standards, and that the right to strike should therefore be protected more. In 2010, the rate of workers who were unionized among the whole working population was 9.8%, ranking 28th among 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. In addition, Korea is one of the seven countries that has not signed the four main conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which are freedom of association, prohibition on discrimination, prohibition of compulsory labor, and protection of minimum age in labor. These figures indicate that the perception on the rights of laborers fails to keep up with the economic level of the country. Therefore, concluding that all unions in Korea are privileged is an excessive generalization.

• Narrow Definition of a Legal Strike

In Korea, the legitimacy of a strike is determined by four criteria: main agent, purpose, timing and procedure, and means of strike. Not only are these criteria stricter than those of foreign countries, but there is also a possibility for judges to make arbitrary interpretations because of the ambiguous terms, such as “appropriate representative” or “coordination with property rights of users.” Moreover, according to judicial precedents, only economical strikes are legally acceptable. Therefore, participating in strikes against policies which can directly affect the livelihood of the laborers can be considered illegal and are punishable. Even strikes resisting companies’ lay-offs are forbidden by the law.

What is a rightful strike?
❶ The subject of the strike should be the one who is qualified to be the
representative of collective bargaining.
❷ The purpose of the strike should be autonomous negotiation between
the employers and the workers for the improvement of the laborers’
working conditions.
❸ The strike should start only when the employer refuses collective
bargaining, and should go through legal procedures such as voting of the
union members.
❹ The method of the strike should be well balaned with the employer’s property rights and not include any use of violence.

• Inexpedience of Applying “Interference with Business” to Strikes

Even if a strike satis_es all the above conditions, labor unions are often charged with “interference with business relations,” which is stated in Article 314 of the Criminal Act. The article indicates a crime disrupting others’ work by spreading false information or using certain force. According to an investigation on the judicial precedents of the Supreme Court of Korea from 1990 to 2015, 58.9% of cases related to strikes were prosecuted as interference with business relations. There were even many cases, in which passive strikes or simply refusing to give labor without any further actions, was de_ned as interference with business. This goes against the principles of the ILO, which prohibits any kind of compulsory labor. Many experts maintain that Article 314 was made to suppress laborers, because there is a higher chance of imprisoning people when the Criminal Act is applied. Moreover, it is relatively easy to sentence high statutory punishments to those who participate in a strike. Ae-rim Yoon, a professor in Korea National Open University, claims that this clause stems from the Colonial Criminal Law, which played a signi_cant role in Japanese capitalists dominating workers in the Joseon Dynasty during the Japanese Colonial Era.

Possible Ways to Promote Coexistence between Workers and Employees

While a strike is a crucial method to protect laborers’ minimum wage and working standards, the most ideal goal that society can pursue is peaceful coexistence between employers and workers before a strike happens. There must be some efforts to restore the relationships between the two parties.

First, reinforcement of the official conciliation body is highly required. Currently, the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) is in charge of coordinating the two parties. Nevertheless, due to a lack of manpower and authority, this institute is nominal. For instance, the number of applications asking for conciliation accumulated to 8,030 from 2004 to 2014, while the NLRC only took administrative measures for 379 of them (4.1%). Even when it did decide to take action, it only counted the number of meetings between the two parties perfunctorily rather than considering the efficiency of the meetings. Since there is no actual third party to mediate, strikes extend and become more violent. Therefore, in the short-run, the government should give enough support to reinforce competence of the conciliation body.

Furthermore, in the long-run, it is important to implement a system which enables laborers to actively share and reflect their thoughts on company management. Embracing can have positive results by instilling workers with a sense of ownership and make them more spontaneously dedicated to their work. Germany is one of the countries with the lowest social losses caused by friction between employers and workers, after adopting a system named Mitbestimmung, meaning co-determination, in 1976. The key to this program is to actively involve employees into company policies. It is mandatory for businesses with more than 2,000 employees to organize an auditing institute of which half of the members are selected from labor unions. Labor unions can also request information on how executives are running the company. At first, some were concerned that such a system might induce more strikes by giving too much power to laborers. After it was implemented, however, it was quickly proven to be a win-win policy for both parties. The number of working days lost due to strikes in Germany is only 5.2 days per 1,000 workers a year, which is only about 20% of the OECD average. Mitbestimmung is recognized as the most powerful driving force leading Germany to become the greatest industrial country among the European Union (EU) nations.


Recently, the World Economic Forum reported an evaluation of the degree of cooperation between workers and employers. Korea has ranked 135th among 138 countries, showing that the major task for Korean society is reducing the conflict between the two parties. Frequent strikes in Korea may indicate the lack of mutual trust in the labor market. Hopefully, all economic parties will be able to make collective efforts to open up a new era of companionship.

지하영  lalotus@naver.com

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