S Korea shaken by civil workers joining militant union


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 - Page 5

The South Korean government yesterday expressed concern that more than 100,000 civil servants have joined a militant labor group known for mass street protests and disrupting industry.

The move is a setback for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government, which sees such groups as dragging down the economy and scaring away investors.

On Tuesday, three civil servant groups voted to join the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), breathing new life into the umbrella labor group that had been struggling in recent months because of defections of members who saw it as more focused on engaging in battles with the conservative government than on seeking to improve the welfare of workers.

“We will review whether the united government workers’ unions can be an appropriate dialogue partner now that it has become a part of the KCTU, with its lack of political neutrality,” the Public Administration and Security Ministry said in a statement.

The government has been pushing reforms to allow greater flexibility in a rigid labor market, including one to double the term to four years that firms can hire contract workers.

The civil servants who joined the KCTU work in a wide array of jobs in regional governments as well as in the court system. They come from a group of 280,000 low-ranking civil servants who are allowed to join organized labor.

There are nearly 1 million civil servants in the country, a government workers’ labor group said.

The economic downturn has led to a realignment of labor in South Korea, with workers at companies including major telecom KT parting ways with the KCTU, saying they see it as too radical to strike compromises that keep businesses afloat and jobs secure.

Labor unions were a major force in the pro-democracy struggles of the late 1980s that pushed aside decades of autocratic rulers and many groups are still at the forefront of political protests.

Labor unrest and laws that make layoffs costly are seen as adding to the cost of doing business in South Korea, decreasing the competitiveness of Asia’s fourth-largest economy against regional rivals high-tech Japan and low-cost China.

The number of work days lost to strikes has been on a decline but it still outstrips that in competing economies in the region.

International Labor Organization statistics showed that in 2007, South Korea had six times more strikes than in Japan, whose population is more than double the size.

The KCTU is particularly strong in the auto industry, leading car makers such as Hyundai Motor Corp to move more production overseas to avoid labour conflict at home.

The addition of the civil servants is a major boost for the KCTU, which claims to already have a membership of 750,000. However, it falls short of outranking the top labor group in the country, the more moderate Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which claims to have more than 1 million members.