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Yoon's labor policy hits snag as FKTU vows all-out struggle

President must respect workers as dialogue partner, union emphasizes

By Lee Jung-youn

Published : June 8, 2023 - 15:05

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The chief of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, Kim Dong-myung (second from left), and union members chant during a press conference held in front of the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap) The chief of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, Kim Dong-myung (second from left), and union members chant during a press conference held in front of the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol's labor reform drive is likely to face significant hurdles, as the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, an umbrella union group the president once sought amicable ties with, declared an all-out struggle against the government on Thursday.

Following its decision to suspend its participation in a trilateral consultative body between the government, management and labor on Wednesday, the FKTU said it would step up its struggle while halting communication with the government in protest against the state's "excessive" use of force. The union has not completely withdrawn from the council, leaving open the possibility of restoring the channel. It would, however, participate in the three-way consultation on setting next year's minimum wage.

"The Yoon Suk Yeol government's laws and principles were to suppress and subdue the labor community using public power as a weapon. It is not dialogue, but a threat," the FKTU said in a statement.

Kim Dong-myung, chief of the FKTU, criticized the current regime for antagonizing and suppressing all workers, saying, "If we do not stop the regime’s rampage, the second and third Gwangyang events will continue." While holding a rally at a steelmaker's Gwangyang, South Jeolla Province, plant last month to demand better treatment of subcontractors, a union member was injured by what the union says was excessive use of police force.

Asked after the press conference about the possibility of a complete withdrawal from the Economic, Social and Labor Council, Kim said, "Since the conversation has already been completely suspended, withdrawal does not hold much meaning. The dialogue may be suspended by the Yoon Suk Yeol regime or FKTU might leave the council."

A simple apology from the government or the release of the arrested FKTU executive is not enough of a gesture to bring the FKTU back to the negotiation table, according to Kim. In order for the FKTU to return to social dialogue, "President Yoon must fundamentally recognize and respect workers as dialogue partners," Kim emphasized.

On the Labor Ministry’s official statement criticizing the FKTU’s decision to suspend conversation, Kim said he would end ties with the minister who had worked for the organization for more than 30 years before taking the ministerial post last year.

The FKTU's boycott practically means the absence of a conversation channel between the labor community and the government, as it has been the only labor union participating in dialogue with the government.

Meanwhile, the third negotiation session to set the minimum wage from 2024 was held Thursday afternoon. FKTU executive Kim, who got injured during a sit-in rally on May 31, is a member of minimum wage commission from the labor community, but could not appear at the session as he is currently under arrest. A sign demanding Kim's release was set in his empty seat by FKTU colleagues.

FKTU members expressed regret saying, "With one worker member lacking due to Kim's absence, it is unfair to proceed the deliberation on the minimum wage in this situation. I call on the chairman to come up with countermeasures, such as supporting the release of Kim."

"FKTU members will keep actively participating in minimum wage discussion, no matter the circumstance," added the FKTU executive Ryu Ki-seop.

At Thursday's minimum wage session, worker members who insisted on applying a single minimum wage and management members who called for a different minimum wage by industry were at odds. Different minimum wage by industry is one of President Yoon's pledges.