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General strike in Korea for workers’ rights and Just Transition

21 October, 2021Korean unions, led by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), staged a general strike across the country on 20 October to protest attacks on freedom of association, demand union rights, and to call for a Just Transition. IndustriALL Global Union affiliates the Korean Metal Workers' Union (KMWU) and Korea Chemical & Textile Workers’ Federation (KCTF) joined the strike.

The strike follows the arrest of KCTU president Yang Kyeung-soo after a police raid on union headquarters on 2 September. Yang is the 13th KTCU president in a row to be jailed since the federation was unbanned in 1997. The release of president Yang, who is still in detention, was one of the demands of the striking workers.

Police block striking workers

Despite severe restrictions on the right to assembly, rallies were held in 14 regions across Korea. In Seoul, police blocked off large areas of the city to prevent assembly. Eventually 24,000 striking workers were able to gather at Seodaemun intersection, demanding:

“Tear down inequality!  A great transition to an equitable society!”

KMWU president Kim Ho Gyu addressed the striking workers at the Seoul rally, saying:

“Inequality is a disaster. An industrial transition dominated by the Chaebol conglomerates would spawn deeper inequality, just like the Covid-19 phenomenon.The Korean Metal Workers' Union will treat this plague of inequality by promoting an industrial transition led by the participation of labour.” 

President Kim also shared the solidarity statement from IndustriALL general secretary Atle Høie:

“In line with the resolution unanimously approved at our third congress on 15 September, IndustriALL reiterates its demand for the release of KCTU President Yang and for the Korean government to stop immediately the crackdown on freedom of association and assembly.

“We express our support to the October 20 general strike and fight for labour law reform for fundamental trade union rights and the abolition of precarious work, for a Just Transition and for stronger public services and social protection.”

Other IndustriALL affiliates also sent solidarity messages, and the UAW and USW joined a delegation to the Korean Embassy in Washington, DC, in solidarity with the strike.

The unions are demanding labour law reform to give fundamental trade union rights to all workers, the abolition of precarious work, a Just Transition based on social dialogue that includes workers’ voices, with guaranteed employment during times of crisis and transition, stronger public services and for the state to take more responsibility for jobs and care.

The Prime Minister responded by saying the government would take strict legal action against unlawful assembly, and punish the organizers and participants at the rallies. Seoul police announced a special investigation unit to a thoroughly investigate the strike.

Unions are concerned about repression after the strike and expect the police to summon trade unionists for legal harassment. In Korea, the right to take collective action is severely restricted and striking is only legal during certain stages of an open collective bargaining negotiation.

Given the repression of union activists, the KCTU has condemned the nomination by the Korean government of a former foreign minister for the post of ILO director general.

Demonstrators in uniforms from the TV series Squid Game

The hit Netflix series Squid Game has recently highlighted the effect of inequality and personal debt on Korean society. The lead character of the series is a former unionized metalworker who lost his job after a strike.

UPDATE: This article was slightly updated on 22 October to improve the translation of president Kim's statement.