South Korea joined the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1991, but has not yet ratified the ILO conventions on Workers Rights (agreements on the freedom of association, on the right to organize and collective bargaining, and on the right of public-service employees to organize). South Korea's constitution provides for the right of workers to associate freely, excluding public-sector employees. According to 1998 legislation, white-collar public workers are allowed to form work-
|Household Consumption in PPP Terms|
|Country||All food||Clothing and footwear||Fuel and power a||Health care b||Education b||Transport & Communications||Other|
|Data represent percentage of consumption in PPP terms.|
|a Excludes energy used for transport.|
|b Includes government and private expenditures.|
|SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.|
place councils, but blue-collar workers in the postal services, railways, telecommunications, and the National Medical Center are allowed to have unions. In 1997, South Korea amended its labor laws to permit competing unions from 2002 onward, and also to permit more than 1 national labor federation. In 2000, there were 3 such federations: the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, and the Independent Korean Federation of Clerical and Financial Workers, in addition to 1,600 district labor unions.
The constitution and the Trade Union Law provide for the right of workers to collective bargaining and collective action. There are provisions for workers to seek retribution in case of unfair practices by employers. The 1997 revision of the labor law removed a ban on third-party intervention (union intervention) in labor disputes. In South Korea, labor disputes tend to escalate to work slowdowns and confrontational interruption of businesses through rallies, sit-ins, and occupation of company offices or factories.
Workers have the right to strike, but strikes in government agencies, state-run enterprises, and defense industries are prohibited. The government has the power to end labor disputes by compulsory arbitration in enterprises that are considered to be of "essential public interest" such as public transportation, public health, and utilities. Wage cuts and layoffs since the 1997 crisis have contributed to the rise of labor disputes, which had dropped to 80 cases in 1995 from the 1980s, when they numbered in the thousands.
The South Korean government implemented a minimum wage in 1998 for companies with more than 10 employees. The rate is subject to annual reviews. In 1999, the minimum wage was US$1.45 per hour. As a rule, it is not adequate for a typical blue-collar worker who must supplement his/her salary with overtime payments and bonuses that most companies usually offer to their employees.
The 1989 amendment to the labor law provides for a 44-hour workweek, but its 1997 revisions enable employers to require some 48-hour weeks without overtime. A reduction in the workweek to 40 hours has become a major goal of the labor movement.
Forced labor and child labor are prohibited, but children under the age of 18 may work under certain conditions. To do so, they require a special employment certificate from the Labor Ministry, which is rarely issued because education is compulsory until the age of 14. Children under the age of 18 who wish to work require written approval from their parents or guardians. There are several laws concerning child labor, which are usually enforced, but regular inspections are not done due to lack of human resources. The government sets safety and health standards at work, but accident rates are high because of the lack of regular inspections.
The 1987 Equal Employment Act provides for the equality of men and women in the workplace. Despite improvement in their hiring and promotion, women are still discriminated against, and many women have been sexually abused. The government has enacted laws to punish abusers and provide redress for the abused, but abuses still continue. Foreign workers, most of whom are undocumented, are subject to various physical and financial abuses. Although the government has legalized the status of some of them and sought to ensure their better treatment by employers, they are still vulnerable to various forms of abuse, including withholding wages and passports.
South Korea has a highly educated workforce of 22 million (1998 est.), a growing segment of which is skilled. Unemployment more than doubled during the 1997 financial crisis, from 2.6 percent (556,000) in 1997 to 6.8 percent (1,461,000) in 1998. Economic recovery reduced it to 4.8 percent (1,353,000) in 1999. In May 2000, the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent.