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South Korea: Prominent union leader Lee Young-joo detained after protest

9 January, 2018IndustriALL Global Union has written to the Korean government to protest the arrest of former Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) general secretary Lee Young-joo.

Sister Lee had been staying at the KCTU office for two years since an arrest warrant was issued for her activities as general secretary of the organization, and particularly her role in organizing the People’s Mass Mobilization on 14 November 2015 against the repressive labour reform of the former government.

At the end of her three-year term as general secretary, she left the KCTU office to embark on a sit-in hunger strike at the office of the ruling Democratic Party to protest working time regulations.

Her health conditions worsened and the party refused all meeting requests. The union executive recommended that she end the hunger strike. She was arrested on 27 December and taken to hospital, where she was questioned by police. On 30 December, at the request of the prosecutor, a detention order was issued, and she was moved to the Seoul detention centre.

Han Sang-gyun, the president of the KCTU, has been held at the same detention centre since December 2015, on virtually identical charges related to the organization of the demonstration. When former Korean President Park was ousted in 2017 after mass protests, 6,444 people were pardoned. However, the charges against Han and Lee were not dropped.

IndustriALL visited and met Han and Lee several times since 2015 as part of its global solidarity with South Korean union movement.

In April 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary detention considered the case of Han and Lee and reminded the Korean government that it has “the responsibility, including in the context of peaceful protests, to prevent arbitrary arrest and detention, and called upon States to avoid the abuse of criminal proceedings at all times.”

In a letter to Korean President Moon Jae-in, IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches wrote:

“We trust that you will fulfil your commitment to abide by national and international labour standards, and that, in this sense, you will put an end to the persecution of union leaders, release all imprisoned trade unionists, and guarantee the respect of fundamental workers’ rights.”

Korean unions are fighting the government’s interpretation of working time regulations. According to the current Labour Standard Act, the working day is eight hours and the week 40 hours. Workers may work an additional 12 hours, and are paid an overtime premium. Yet the government has interpreted this law to define the working week as Monday to Friday. This means that workers can be required by their employers to work 40 hours from Monday to Friday, plus 12 hours overtime, and also eight hours per day on Saturday and Sunday, for a premium.

This interpretation makes the working week 68 hours long, the longest in the world. Under section 59, some categories of work are exempted from working time regulations. The current government wants to remove the premium for weekend work. The main fight by the unions is to end this interpretation of the law and the section 59 exemptions, which cause injury and death.

The main goals of the union campaign are to:

  1. Achieve fundamental labour rights for all by ratifying ILO core conventions, bringing domestic labour law in line with international standards,
  2. Reduce inequality by strengthening social solidarity, increasing the minimum wage and abolishing precarious work
  3. Reform the Chaebol-centred economic system by holding conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai responsible for labour relations, health and safety and so on.