The Korea Herald


S. Korea set to chair ILO for first time in 21 years, amid labor union criticism

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : June 14, 2024 - 17:28

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Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik

South Korea is poised to chair the executive body of the International Labor Organization for the first time in 21 years, a move that has drawn criticism from the country's labor unions, which question its qualifications for the role.

Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik, serving as the head delegate for the Korean government at the 112th Session of the International Labor Conference, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that South Korea has been recommended as the sole candidate for the position.

The conference, which began June 3 and ends Friday, will likely finalize the decision on Saturday through consensus among representatives. If confirmed, Yun Seong-deok, Korean ambassador to the UN office in Geneva, will assume the chairmanship for 2024-25.

This will mark the first time since 2003 that South Korea will serve as the ILO Governing Body chair.

This position entails mediating differences among governments, employers and laborers from the 187 member states of the UN agency, as well as establishing labor standards and formulating policies.

Lee emphasized that this accomplishment signifies the international community's recognition of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration's efforts to reform the labor sector, promote social dialogue and enhance fundamental labor rights in line with the global standards advocated by the ILO, the goal of which is to advance social and economic justice by setting international labor standards.

However, labor unions, including the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the country’s two largest umbrella trade unions, have questioned whether Korea is qualified to be the top coordinator.

The FKTU stated, "While there is nothing to demean in being the top coordinator, it is also problematic to overinflate its significance," highlighting that labor-management relations "reached their lowest point ever" not long ago.

"The Korean government should reflect on whether it values the status and honor of Korea's chairmanship and work to reestablish basic labor rights," the FKTU added.

The KCTU has argued that the government should stop oppressing labor unions and comply with basic labor rights. The labor union referred to the case of Yang Hoe-dong, a 50-year-old union member who died by self-immolation on May 1 last year in protest of the Yoon government's treatment of labor unions.

"The international labor community was outraged and issued a statement condemning the government's blatant disregard for its obligation to comply with international labor rights standards and serious violations of basic labor rights," the KCTU said.

“The honor of being the top coordinator comes with a correspondingly great sense of responsibility. The government should stop oppressing labor unions and protect its workers."