South Korean Labor Leader Arrested after Clashes over Working Hours

The South Korean government arrested Kim Myeong-Hwan, leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, on June 21, over his role in protests against working hours legislation. Photo credit: Labor and the World, cropped from original.

UPDATE, June 27: Kim was released on 100 million won ($86,421) bail today, following a court ruling that his release would not constitute “a risk of evidence destruction.”—Eds.

The South Korean government has arrested the leader of the country’s largest independent union organization in a stunning break from its pro-labor rhetoric.

On June 21, the police arrested Kim Myeong-hwan, chairman of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, after a Seoul court issued an arrest warrant, citing him as a flight risk. Over the past three months, he and KCTU officials have clashed with riot police at the National Assembly over a controversial bill that union leaders say would dangerously extend working hours.

The government chose to detain him even though Kim was fully cooperating with its investigation.

Sidelined

The average South Korean worker works 2,014 hours a year, compared with 1,356 hours in Germany, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2015, a tripartite commission made up of representatives of business, labor, and the conservative government of then-President Park Geun-hye agreed to phase in new regulations to reduce annual work hours to 1,800 by 2020. Labor was represented solely by the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, the KCTU’s larger and more conservative rival. The KCTU did not take part in the commission in protest of a series of anti-labor measures and the jailing of then-KCTU chairman Han Sang-gyun and other union leaders.

The tripartite agreement included a proviso of “working-hour flexibility,” allowing employers to expand working hours to 64 hours a week for up to three months a year for certain seasonal and contract jobs without overtime pay. However, the exemption was meant to take effect only after substantial reductions in working hours.

Working-hour flexibility was among several thorny issues that stopped the KCTU early this year from joining a new tripartite commission set up by the reform-minded government of President Moon Jae-in.

This new commission agreed to a legislative bill that included two incompatible clauses: a new working-hour reduction scheme and a new proviso expanding working hours for some jobs to 64 hours per week for up to six months a year without overtime pay.

The government railroaded the bill from the tripartite commission to the legislature without seeking the KCTU’s input.

Rather than cutting down on hours at work, the KCTU argued that the bill, once enacted, will open a backdoor for corporations to compel even longer working hours.

The cut in working hours to 1,800 a year by 2020 was already unattainable. Both the Park and Moon governments have ignored the timeframe agreed to four years ago, and there is no way for the government to meet the target with the 64-hour a week proviso.

These concerns prompted KCTU leaders in March and April to crash National Assembly hearings on the bill, which ended in several clashes with police. The clashes resulted in the arrests of three other KCTU officials, apart from Kim.

Labor-Respecting Society

The rise of the current Moon Jae-in government is deeply indebted to KCTU unionists and ordinary citizens, who took to the streets in the winter of 2017 to unseat the corrupt authoritarian Park Geun-hye from the presidency in what is now dubbed “the Candlelight Revolution,” a reference to the countless beams of candlelight ablaze during the nighttime protests.

Moon, a former human rights lawyer and student activist, became president in May 2017, with a strong mandate of labor and democratic reforms. He encapsulated his labor pledge in a slogan, “Toward a labor-respecting society.”

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But his vision for a labor-respecting society is fuzzy. Many of his promises remain unfulfilled or have ended in half measures. In July 2017, the government raised the legal minimum wage by 16.4 percent to 7,530 won per hour ($6.50), despite corporate opposition. However, it quickly redefined seasonal bonuses and certain cash benefits as part of salaries to blunt the effects of the raise. Moon’s campaign pledge to raise the minimum wage to 10,000 won ($8.63) by 2020 is now out of the question.

The Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, the country’s sole national labor union for teachers, remains outlawed, as it has been since 2013 when the Park government banned the union on a technicality: the union financially supported about 32 members who could no longer maintain legal status as teachers after being fired for their union activity.

The Moon government has yet to withdraw a number of lawsuits seeking damages from unionists for property losses and police injuries allegedly caused by their strike actions. These suits were filed under the conservative government, which used the threat of hefty damages to frustrate labor militancy.

The arrest of Kim will further cast doubts on the Moon government’s commitment to a labor-respecting society.

The KCTU’s New Opportunity

Despite these frustrations, the KCTU has been capitalizing on the new political opening under President Moon. The union federation has begun to grow again, reversing 14 years of declines. In the past two years, 200,000 workers joined the KCTU, boosted by new campaigns targeting temporary and service-sector workers. New unions have begun to emerge in tech and retail-franchise sectors.

In March, the KCTU surpassed the psychologically and politically important mark of one million members, threatening to supplant the FKTU, its conservative rival, as the biggest union organization in the country.

KCTU Chairmanship: A Dangerous Job

It is preposterous to detain the leader of a million-plus unionists as a flight risk, especially after the political trust that the KCTU has placed in the Moon government.

The KCTU feels betrayed. It has remained supportive of much of Moon’s agenda, including his peace process with North Korea. The organization has been playing a central role in dozens of policy initiatives launched under the Moon government even as it remains absent from the tripartite commission on economic and labor policies.

Kim’s arrest will likely put an end to the KCTU’s cooperation with the Moon government.

“The Moon government is no longer the government of the candlelight revolution,” said Kim, an hour before his arrest warrant was issued. “It proved to be incompetent and irresponsible.”

Since its founding in 1995, the KCTU has often taken on the government head-on over anti-labor measures. Kim, a 54-year-old former railway worker, is now the fifth KCTU chairman to be placed under arrest.

The KCTU is planning a national strike in July to protest Kim’s detention.

Kap Seol is a writer based in New York.