The government said last week it would submit a motion to the parliament this fall for the ratification of three of four key International Labor Organization conventions that South Korea has not yet adopted.
The move, announced by Employment and Labor Minister Lee Jae-kap, marks an about-face from the government’s position that the ratification should be sought after related domestic laws are revised.
The country joined the UN agency on labor in 1991 but has not ratified four out of its eight core conventions -- provisions No. 87 and No. 98 on the freedom of association and No. 29 and No. 105 on the abolition of forced labor.
The government plans to leave convention No. 105 unratified as its ratification should be ensued by an overhauling of Korea’s penal system beyond amending labor acts. Among others, the country’s national security law, which bans its people from engaging in activities benefitting North Korea, can be viewed as violating this convention that prohibits compulsory labor as punishment for activities including the expression of political opinions.
The local business community is duly concerned that the planned ratification of the three ILO conventions would tilt the ground further in workers’ favor.
The measure would allow workers who have been dismissed or laid off by companies to join labor unions and expand the scope of public servants eligible for union membership. Employers would be required to pay wages to full-time union officials.
It is reasonable that ILO conventions should be applied based on an agreement between labor and management in individual nations, which have different economic and labor conditions.
Certainly, there is an increasing need to match local labor practices with international standards in keeping with the spread of free trade agreements.
Korea has been under mounting pressure from the European Union to adopt the four ILO conventions as agreed in their free trade accord that came into force in 2011.
Of the 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 31 have ratified all of the eight core ILO conventions.
What should be noted is that those advanced countries in full compliance with ILO standards have guaranteed a level playing field for labor and management. They allow companies to hire replacement workers when their employees walk out, prohibit workers on strike from occupying workplaces and impose fines, instead of criminal punishment, on employers for violating labor practices.
The local business community has called for introducing such measures as a precondition for adopting additional ILO conventions.
Their request was turned down in the course of discussion by a presidential panel on the ratification of the conventions over the past 10 months.
The Economic, Social and Labor Council, which comprises representatives of labor, management and the public interest, ended its discussion earlier last week with no agreement. Members representing the public interest sided with labor in calling for the ratification of the ILO conventions without introducing complementary measures suggested by management.
The government should have waited for lawmakers to take over from the trilateral panel and deliberate on the issue rather than announcing a plan to submit a ratification motion to the National Assembly during its regular session that starts in September.
During his election campaign, President Moon Jae-in pledged to ratify the ILO conventions during his tenure. Given the pro-labor stance he has kept since he took office two years ago, the demand from management would hardly be reflected in the draft legal revisions to be submitted by the government to the parliament along with the ratification motion.
Friction with the business community and pro-corporate opposition lawmakers would escalate if the administration and the ruling party would push for the ratification of the ILO conventions without proper legal amendments.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the country’s two major labor umbrella groups, has condemned even the government’s plan to seek the ratification and revision of relevant labor acts simultaneously. After the ratification of core conventions, it argues, the parliament could revise laws with the help of the ILO for a year until it takes effect.
Given the labor unions’ uncompromising attitude, this sequence means that companies would not be equipped with tools to protect their managerial rights in response to strengthened labor power.
The ratification of the ILO conventions cannot be delayed indefinitely, but it should be based on legal and institutional foundations that are not tilted toward either labor or management.