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[Newsmaker] KCTU faces calls to return to three-way talks

Calls are growing for the nation’s second-biggest umbrella trade union to return to a long-halted social dialogue among the government, businesses and labor unions, after the largest umbrella union signaled its return to the negotiation table. 

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions hinted at its participation in the Tripartite Commission of Labor, Management and Government -- a three-way body made up of labor unions, employers and government -- during a dinner meeting with President Moon Jae-in at Cheong Wa Dae on Tuesday.

However, the participation of another important party in the three-way committee -- Korean Confederation of Trade Unions -- remains uncertain. 

The KCTU, the second-biggest umbrella union group and a more progressive one than the FKTU -- refused to attend the Tuesday‘s dinner meeting, dismissing it as “a political show.”

“As the president presided over the job creation committee, I hope he presides over the first meeting of the Tripartite Commission of Labor, Management and Government so that it can kick off with strength,” the FKTU head Kim Ju-young said. 

The FKTU also renewed its request for President Moon to head a new body consisting of eight parties -- two umbrella unions, business interest groups, the Labor Ministry, the Finance Ministry and President Moon -- to initiate the long-stalled dialogue. 

The three-way social dialogue has been halted since the FKTU walked out of the negotiating body in January last year in protest against the former Park Geun-hye government’s push for labor market reforms. The KCTU quit the trilateral committee in 1999 in defiance of mass dismissals in the face of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

The relationship between labor and government had faltered during Park’s presidency, as she had pushed to make the labor market more flexible, which the labor bloc saw as undermining job security and labor rights. 

In an apparent attempt to mend ties, President Moon invited leaders of major labor unions on Tuesday evening. It marks his first meeting with labor leaders since he took office in May. Moon met with business leaders in July. 

President Moon Jae-in (right) and Kim Ju-young, head of the FKTU, at a dinner meeting at Cheong Wa Dae Tuesday. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in (right) and Kim Ju-young, head of the FKTU, at a dinner meeting at Cheong Wa Dae Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Moon vowed to involve workers as “important partners” in running state affairs and displayed hope for the resumption of the three-way talks during the meeting. 

“The labor policies for the past 10 years have been unilaterally pushed for. As a result, labor unions shrank in size and number while the quality of each and every laborer‘s lives worsened,” Moon said.

”The meeting will be an important starting point to restore relations between laborers and the government as partners.“

As for the KCTU’s boycott of the meeting, he expressed regret. 

“In whatever forms, I hope that social dialogue can proceed through meetings among labor, management and government at the trilateral committee,” he said.

The KCTU boycotted the meeting for two reasons: the meeting included the head of the Tripartite Commission and the presidential office selectively contacted individual trade unions under the KCTU without its leadership’s approval.

But the KCTU is facing mounting calls to return to dialogue to tackle many pending issues such as long work hours, minimum wage and irregular workers, under the Moon administration, which is considered labor friendly. 

The government appointed Kim Young-joo, who served as deputy chairperson of the Korean Financial Industry Union under the FKTU, as labor minister and Moon Sung-hyun, former head of the Korean Steel Industry Association under KCTU, as the head of the trilateral committee in an apparent effort to bring the labor unions back to the three-way committee. 

Some critics say the KCTU’s decision to boycott the president’s call for a meeting is highly political and might even reflect an internal feud in the umbrella union group in the face of the upcoming election to pick the organization’s new leader. The KCTU’s incumbent leader Han Sang-kyun has been placed behind bars on charges of holding “illegal” rallies. 

The two union umbrella groups represent about 10 percent of all workers in South Korea. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (