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President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with Korean Confederation of Trade Unions President Kim Myung-hwan in advance of their discussion at the Blue House on Jan. 19. (provided by Blue House)


The announcement came following a meeting between labor executives and President Moon

After the new executives of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, they announced their intention to participate in tripartite negotiations among labor, management and the government. This greatly increased the likelihood of bringing both of South Korea’s national trade union centers back into social dialogue for the first time in 19 years.

The KCTU withdrew from South Korea’s Tripartite Commission in 1999 to protest the government’s introduction of the dispatch worker system and arbitrary dismissals of workers, and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) also withdrew in Jan. 2016 in opposition to the government’s unilateral attempt to push through labor reform following a grand bargain among labor, management and the government on Sept. 15, 2015, during the presidency of Park Geun-hye. Attention is focusing on what the new body for social dialogue advocated by Moon and supported by both labor and management will look like, as well as what matters will be on its agenda.

The KCTU made the announcement in a press release put out after President Kim Myeong-hwan and other KCTU executives met with Moon at the Blue House on the afternoon of Jan. 19.

“Creating a society that respect workers requires a major upgrade in the basic rights of labor and the right to organize labor unions. That upgrade will require dialogue and negotiations of various kinds, including social dialogue, bargaining within each industry and regular deliberations about labor policy. We agreed to delay the tripartite meeting scheduled for Jan. 24 to enable both national labor union centers to participate, and we also agreed to make that decision through detailed deliberations in the future,” the KCTU said in its press release.

“Now that the KCTU has announced its willingness to participate, we will be able to reschedule the meeting with the approval of the other parties,” said a spokesperson for the Tripartite Commission. As a consequence, talks to create a new social dialogue body are likely to begin when representatives from labor, management and government meet at the beginning of next month, when the KCTU makes it final decision about its participation schedule.

It has been observed that the current social dialogue body, namely the Tripartite Commission, has never achieved a grand social compromise capable of satisfying all three parties (labor, management and the government) since it was launched in 1998. Labor advocates have pilloried the commission for demanding that workers made unilateral sacrifices while carrying water for government policy.


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President Moon Jae-in speaks with Korean Confederation of Trade Unions President Kim Myung-hwan at the Blue House on Jan. 19. (provided by Blue House)


For such reasons, Moon has promised since his presidential campaign that he would create a new social dialogue body better-suited for conditions in Korea. His pledge was to go beyond the two national labor union centers and employer organizations and have the body include representatives of regular workers, temporary workers, young workers and women workers on the side of labor and representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises and the service sector on the side of management.

“The reorganization of the social dialogue body could extend to its members, its agenda, its method of operation and even its name,” said Mun Sung-hyun, chair of the Tripartite Commission for Economic and Social Development on Jan. 11.

The agenda that will be discussed by the new social dialogue body is likely to focus on tackling the polarization of society, a matter that requires cooperation between labor and management. The agenda items included on a five-year roadmap for job creation announced by the government in July 2017 were narrowing the gap in the labor market and diversifying types of employment as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Other topics that could be discussed include employment welfare for the working poor and strengthening the social safety net. One of the more urgent items to be discussed is ratifying the key conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), something that the current administration has already pledged and that the labor community has repeatedly demanded.

KCTU calls for release of imprisoned former president Han Sang-gyun

According to a press release issued by the FKTU after a luncheon with Moon on Jan. 19, “President Moon said that organized labor needs to set the mood for revising the law and ratifying the key conventions.” Considering that academics have cautioned against getting hung up on attempts to reach a grand compromise on the national level, the social dialogue body might also try to facilitate dialogue on the level of specific industries and regions.

In related news, the KCTU said on Jan. 19 that it had “urged Moon to make a bold decision in regard to releasing former KCTU president Han Sang-gyun from prison, which is a matter not of political consideration but rather of justice and common sense.”

“The gist of the discussion was that making progress, such as a compromise between labor, management and the government, could create the mood for making those wishes come true,” a senior official from the Blue House said when asked for comment.

“We regard today’s meeting as an initial phase in creating social dialogue between labor, management and the government. We believe that dialogue can help us reach a certain stage or point,” the official added.


By Park Tae-woo and Seong Yeon-cheol, staff reporters

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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