Monday, January 30, 2006

Korean Public Workers

Implementation of the Public Officials' Union Act and Trends of Labor Movement in the Public Service Sector

The implementation of the Public Officials' Union Act is significant as it enables Korea to shed its bad name as the only state among OECD members not to allow public officials' unions, and to meet international labor standards. Legalization of public officials' unions will presumably determine future characteristics of the Korean labor movement, as the focus of the movement moves from the private manufacturing industry to the public sector.

In Korea, where industrialization took place at a slower pace than in the West, establishment of the concept "worker" also has a shorter history. Attributed to strong Confucian traditions, as seen in the old saying "a king, teacher and parents should be treated with equal respect", a noble "teacher" could not be equivalent to an oil-stained "worker", nor could a "public servant of the state" be considered as a worker. Moreover, a prolonged military dictatorship that placed ultimate value on economic development at the expense of the so-called "pillars of industry" made it hard for equations such as "teacher = worker" or "government employee = worker" to be socially accepted.

At the end of such hardship, however, a new horizon has emerged in the labor movement and public service community of Korea. From January 28, 2006, the new "Act on the Establishment and Operation, etc. of Unions by Public Officials" (Public Officials' Union Act, hereafter) was implemented, according to which regular public servants will be provided with statutory basic labor rights.

This article will examine the history and significance of the process through which public officials came to be recognized legally as "workers", prospects of future industrial relations for public servants, and issues of concern as the relations in the sector are set on a new course.

1. Prior to the enactment of the public officials' Union Act

Although the basic framework of the early legal system, which was put in place at the time of foundation of the Republic of Korea Government in 1948, had provided for the basic labor rights of public officials in principle, such framework was fundamentally changed as the government began to consider economic growth as the priority task of the nation. Amendments of the National Public Officials' Act in 1961 and 1962 put bans on labor movement by all public officials, except for "those engaged in manual labor."

Such laws, which strictly limited the basic labor rights of public officials, eventually faced great change with the advent of "democratization" in the 1980s. The basic labor rights of public officials met an important turning point in 1987, as an amendment of the National Constitution recognized such rights "in principle." Furthermore, in 1989, a bill to revise the labor law so that rights to organize and collectively bargain would be guaranteed for public officials in positions not exceeding grade 6 was formulated. Though the bill was trashed due to a presidential veto, discussions on whether or not to allow the basic labor rights of public officials continued.

Amidst the strong current of democratization, opinions from various levels that the excessive restrictions on the basic labor rights of public and private school teachers as well as public servants should be mitigated began to be heard. However, the attempts to revise the related laws ended in failure, which led to criticism from international organizations such as the ILO and OECD, and other domestic and overseas labor-related organizations.

A new turning point was created in February 1998. The Korea Tripartite Commission, which was established in January 1998, shortly after the foreign currency crisis in late 1997, succeed in reaching a social agreement on allowing the basic labor rights of government workers by stages in February 6, 1998, starting new prospects for the public service labor rights issue. The agreement included allowing works councils for government workers as a first stage (implemented from 1999); and allowing trade unions, while specific time of implementation would be decided in consideration of public opinion and revision of the concerned laws and regulations, in the second stage.

Difficulties continued even after the agreement until the Special Act on Public Officials' Unions was enacted. In October 2002, the Ministry of Government Administration and Home Affairs submitted a bill on public officials' unions to the National Assembly, however, the labor movement strongly opposed this bill, which did not allow the use of the term "trade union." Finally in December 2002, presidential candidate Roh Mu-Hyun of the Democratic Party during the 16th Presidential Election promised to guarantee basic labor rights of public officials at a similar level as the teachers' union if he was elected. As he was elected as President, the bill previously submitted to the National Assembly by the government was withdrawn and a new bill was to be compiled under the supervision of the Minister of Labor. It was through such toilsome process that the term "Public Officials' Trade Union" was decided to be used, and the Public Officials' Trade Union Act, which provided for partial rights to organize and collectively bargain for public officials in the 6th grade or lower was passed by the National Assembly on December 31, 2004, and came into force on January 28, 2006.


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