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‘Housekeepers may form labor union’

Will housekeeping be acknowledged as a secure profession given equal labor rights to office or industrial workers?

Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Chae-pil on Tuesday said the Korean government is considering protecting the rights of housekeepers, personal chauffeurs, cooks and gardeners, often referred to as “domestic workers.”

In his interview with the press before giving a keynote speech at the International Labor Organization Conference 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland, the minister also said he agrees that housekeepers’ rights should be legally guaranteed. He hinted that Korea may vote for an international legal instrument to ensure decent work for domestic workers worldwide, which has been outlined by the ILO last year to radically improve their global protection. If the instrument is approved in the vote, a formal convention will be adopted to help the workers gain their rights in their respective societies.

Currently, there are 52.6 million domestic workers worldwide and up to 600,000 of them are estimated to work in Korea.

Civic activists claim that these workers are struggling against poor working conditions. They do not subscribe to the national health insurance or national pension schemes supported by their employers and are often forced to work extra hours without payment. Many of them do not have a proper working contract and are banned from forming labor unions or seeking labor negotiation.

In a survey of 341 domestic workers aged over 55 by the Korean Women Workers Association, the majority of respondents worried about their job security and desired to subscribe to social insurance schemes such as health, employment, industrial disaster and the national pension.

Lee said Korea may have to make some revisions to related law before guaranteeing them labor rights.

“According to the Korean law, workers are protected with regard to their rights when they have labor contracts. Therefore, we must first verify with whom the domestic workers are bound to work and what legal grounds could be offered for protection,” he said.

Lee added that the government would take time to look into ways to guarantee the domestic workers’ rights in a broader spectrum.

Meanwhile, in his keynote speech, Lee mentioned the controversial issue of adopting plural labor unions in a single workplace. Currently, the revised regulation is feared to weaken unions and cause friction among militant umbrella groups. But at the same time it is credited for protecting workers’ rights among milder and weaker groups.

“From July this year, workers will finally be able to have multiple trade unions at sizable companies, and the collective bargaining shall take place through the representative union.

“The ILO issued a total of 11 recommendations requesting the Korean government to adopt plural unionism to guarantee workers’ freedom of association. Workers, employers and the government went through the laborious tripartite consultation and we made it,” he said.

He also said the new system will breathe new life into the management-labor relations in the industrial field.

“Now, trade unions in Korea enjoy high level of autonomy. Workers’ right to organize will be fully guaranteed. As workers’ voices will be heard via a more democratic mechanism, the union representative of multiple unions will have stronger leverage on the negotiation table,” he said.

By Bae Ji-sook (baejisook@heraldcorp.com)
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