Labour in developing countries: unions in Korea

Leggett, Chris, and Kwon, Seung-ho (1997) Labour in developing countries: unions in Korea. In: Frontiers of labour : proceedings of the Fifth National Conference of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. pp. 1-21. From: Frontiers of Labour, 2-4 October 1997, Perth, WA, Australia.

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The democratisation of Korea during the past decade has been accompanied by mass worker protest from the country's independent trade union movement and finally involving the official trade unions. Far from being simply a struggle against autocratic government, chaebol workers, led by radical trade unionists, have sought to relieve their organisations from subordination to their employers by, among other means, challenging the Korean government's intransigence over reforming restrictive labour legislation. This challenge culminated in a general strike earlier this year after the government instead of reforming the labour legislation sought to maintain its restrictions and strengthen managerial prerogatives.

Historically, the Korean labour movement has been a movement of struggle. Even before, but certainly during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), followed by the post-WWII division of the Korean Peninsular (1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), the subordination of workers and trade unions to the interests of a state-supported monopolistic capitalism has made this so. From the 1960s, the rapid industrialisation of Korea was achieved through the symbiotic relationship between the state and the chaebol, not the trade unions, the legacy of which still bedevils Korean industrial relations today.

As in Japan, the radical labour movement which emerged after WWII in Korea in 1945 was rolled back in the late 1940s as Cold War politics determined government policies. However, in spite of the government-chaebol hostility to organized labour, in the 1970s, an independent labour movement was revived by union activists and pro-democracy activists to counter it. In the mid-1980s, this radical alliance, after securing community support, organized strikes and civil unrest in support of recognition of an independent trade union movement which could collectively bargain with chaebol managements.

This paper identifies the historical antecedents of Korea’s post-WWII and contemporary labour movement with the purpose of demonstrating the significance of the former for understanding the latter.

Item ID: 17130
Item Type: Conference Item (Non-Refereed Research Paper)
ISBN: 978-0-86422-804-8
Keywords: labour, industrial relations, trade unions, South Korea
Date Deposited: 27 Mar 2013 07:12
FoR Codes: 15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1503 Business and Management > 150306 Industrial Relations @ 100%
SEO Codes: 91 ECONOMIC FRAMEWORK > 9104 Management and Productivity > 910401 Industrial Relations @ 100%
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