Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, conduct strikes within strict limits, and bargain collectively, but certain limitations apply to public officials and teachers.
The law recognizes workers’ right to strike; workers in essential services are required to provide “minimum service” during strikes to protect the public interest. Essential services are defined by law to include railroads, air transport, communications, water supply, and hospitals. The trade union law prohibits the use of replacement workers to conduct general business disrupted by strikes, but in essential services employers may hire replacements for up to 50 percent of striking workers.
By law parties involved in a “labor dispute” must first undergo third-party mediation through the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) or seek a labor-management settlement before registering to strike. Strikes initiated following this period are legal if they obtain majority support from union membership. The law narrowly defines “labor dispute,” which makes strikes on many issues falling under managerial control, such as downsizing and layoffs, illegal. Strikes not specifically pertaining to labor conditions, wages, benefits, or working hours are illegal. Stakeholders noted strike procedures were overly burdensome. Participating in strikes deemed to be illegal may result in imprisonment or a fine for the organizers and participants, depending on the offense.
Laws banning education workers from engaging in certain political activities, such as joining a political party or openly endorsing a political party or candidate, also constrained unions’ abilities to advocate for their positions. The law also prohibits dismissed workers from remaining in unions.
The law permits workers to file complaints of unfair labor practices against employers who interfere with union organizing or who discriminate against union members. The NLRC may require employers to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The law prohibits retribution against workers who strike legally. Labor organizations asserted that the inability of full-time labor-union officials to receive wages and the onerous registration requirements for individuals involved in collective bargaining effectively limited legal protections against unfair labor practices. In June a law took effect that allows employers to assist labor unions with operational expenses. Labor-union activists viewed the law as a step forward because previously employers were prohibited from providing such assistance.
The government generally enforced legislation related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and collective action, including legal strikes, and the penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. In addition an employer may be penalized for noncompliance with a labor relations commission order to reinstate a worker. The law sets penalties in the form of fines or imprisonment against employers who refuse unions’ legitimate requests for bargaining. In December 2019, 26 Samsung Electronics executives were found guilty of union busting by planning and executing a scheme to break up the Samsung Electronics Service Union. The Seoul Central District Court sentenced Samsung vice president Kang Kyung-hoon to 18 months in prison, and other senior executives also faced imprisonment. The court determined that the executives had masterminded a plan of intimidation intended to thwart unionization in the company and its subcontractors.
Labor organizations generally operated without government interference.
Undocumented foreign workers faced difficulties participating in union activities due to fear of exposing themselves to arrest and deportation. “Dispatched workers” (those on temporary contracts) faced increased risk of nonrenewal of their work contract if they joined unions or engaged in industrial disputes.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally enforced the law effectively but did not consistently identify cases of forced labor; penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
NGOs continued to report that some migrant workers were subject to forced labor, particularly those who had incurred thousands of dollars in debt for payment of recruitment fees, making them vulnerable to debt bondage. Some migrant workers in the agriculture, livestock, and fishing industries faced conditions indicative of forced labor, including deceptive recruiting practices, confiscation of passports, and nonpayment of wages.
NGOs reported harsh conditions for migrant seafarers, many of whom worked more than 18 hours per day. Migrant seafarers, primarily from Southeast Asia, were physically or verbally abused by Korean captains and other crew and were forced to work even when sick. According to NGOs, deep-sea fishing vessels depended heavily on migrant seafarers; 73.3 percent of workers on Korean deep-sea vessels in 2018 were migrants.
The government continued investigations of working conditions for foreign sailors. From May to June, the coast guard conducted enforcement operations for human rights violations against migrant workers in the fisheries industry. Similar operations in 2019 resulted in the arrest by maritime police of 94 individuals for suspected human rights or worker rights abuses. Stakeholders reported that such enforcement activities were limited by jurisdictional disputes between the Ministry of Employment and Labor and the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
The government also investigated instances of abuse, including forced labor, against workers with intellectual disabilities in the fisheries industry.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits employing minors younger than age 15 without an authorization certificate from the Ministry of Employment and Labor, and the government generally enforced the law. Authorities issued few such certificates for full-time employment because education is compulsory through the end of middle school. Children ages 15 to 18 may work with the consent of at least one parent or guardian. Employers in industries considered harmful or hazardous to a minor’s morals or health may not hire them and face fines or imprisonment for violations. The maximum penalty for child labor, two years’ imprisonment, was not commensurate with that for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping, which is penalized by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Through September the government reported no violations of child labor laws.
There were some reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6, Children.).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in employment or occupation on the basis of gender, nationality, social status, religion, or disability. No law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of language or HIV or other communicable disease status. The penalties for employment discrimination were commensurate with laws related to similar violations. The law prohibits companies with more than 30 employees from asking job applicants about family members, place of origin, marital status, age, or property ownership.
The law provides for equal pay for equal work. The government inconsistently enforced the law, and discrimination occurred with respect to gender. The gender pay gap was 32.5 percent in 2019. Workers’ rights groups attributed the gap to women’s childcare and household responsibilities. A higher percentage of women filled lower-paying, low-skilled, contract jobs, and women often faced difficulties returning to the workforce after childbirth. Legal restrictions against women in employment included limits on working hours, occupations, and tasks. In particular the law restricted women’s participation in “hazardous” occupations such as mining.
The government’s Sixth Basic Plan on Equal Employment and Work-Life Balance for 2018 to 2022 provides a roadmap for a policy on women’s employment that consists of three pillars: creating nondiscriminatory working environments, preventing interruptions in women’s careers, and providing re-employment for “career-interrupted” women.
The workplace antibullying law requires employers to take action to fight bullying in the workplace. According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 70 percent of persons surveyed in 2018 said they had been bullied at work. By law employers convicted of failing to take action to protect bullied employees face a fine and up to three years in prison.
The law prohibits discrimination against subcontracted (also known as “dispatched”) and temporary workers, who comprised approximately one-third of all wage workers and were found especially in the electronics, automotive, and service sectors. Nonetheless, NGOs and local media reported discrimination against informal or irregular workers (those who do not have full-time, permanent employment and who do not receive benefits at the same level as permanent workers). For example, while the law requires the conversion to permanent status of those employed longer than two years, employers often laid off irregular workers shortly before the two-year mark. To address this problem, the government provides subsidies and tax breaks to encourage businesses to hire temporary workers on a permanent basis, according to the labor ministry. The International Labor Organization noted that the disadvantaged status of irregular workers contributed to discrimination against women given that women were overrepresented among these workers.
Discrimination in the workplace occurred against persons with HIV/AIDS, women, persons with disabilities, and migrant workers.
Many migrant workers faced workplace discrimination. The maximum length of stay permitted under the Employee Permit System is four years and 10 months, just under the five years needed to apply for permanent residency. NGOs and civil society groups asserted this policy is designed to exclude foreign workers from permanent residence or citizenship eligibility. NGOs stated it remained difficult for migrant workers to change employers (see sections 7.b. and 7.e.).
The law allows employers to pay foreign workers on South Korean-flagged ships lower wages than South Korean workers. The minimum wage for Korean workers is set by the government while industry and trade union representatives, who do not represent foreign workers, set the minimum wage for foreign employees. According to NGOs, the rate for domestic crewmembers is five times higher than for foreign workers. Further, unlike citizens, foreign sailors are not entitled to profit sharing. Many foreign seafarers reported to NGOs that they received only 600,000 won ($517) in monthly wages.
The law prohibits recruiters, agents, employers, or managers from receiving money or other valuables or benefits from job seekers or employees in exchange for securing employment. Nevertheless, NGOs reported South Korean-flagged vessel owners routinely demanded security deposits from foreign crewmembers to discourage them from transferring jobs.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
During the year the minimum wage increased 2.9 percent and was above the official poverty line. NGOs reported that as the minimum wage increased, employers tried to curb expenses by reducing work hours, listing employees as “on-call” at home when they were in fact at work, employing undocumented foreign workers, and charging migrant workers for their accommodations and board.
The law allows a flexible system under which employees may work more than eight hours during certain days and more than 40 hours per week during certain weeks (up to a maximum of 52 hours in a single week), so long as average weekly work hours for any two-week period do not exceed 40 hours and workers have a mandatory day of rest each week. For employers who adopt a flexible system, hours exceeding 80 in a two-week period constitute overtime. Foreign companies operating in export-processing zones are exempt from labor regulations that mandate one day of rest a week. The law limits overtime of ordinary workers to 12 hours a week.
The government generally effectively enforced laws on wages and acceptable conditions of work in most sectors, but migrants faced discriminatory laws and practices. The Labor Ministry was responsible for enforcement of these laws and the number of labor inspectors was sufficient to deter violations in most sectors. Inspectors had the authority to identify unsafe conditions, conduct unannounced visits, and issue corrective orders. Penalties for violations included imprisonment and fines and were generally commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
Regulations outline legal protections for migrant and foreign workers. Inspections covered businesses with foreign workers, particularly in the agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and construction sectors, which generally had poor working conditions. Migrants’ rights advocates noted the government inspected only a small percentage of workplaces that hire migrant workers and asserted that employers were not deterred from violating labor standards because most inspections were perfunctory and, even if violations were found, the typical result was a corrective order.
Migrant workers faced multiple restrictions on employment mobility, which left them vulnerable to exploitation. Migrant workers must obtain the consent of their current employers to switch jobs. The Ministry of Labor stated that migrant workers may apply to change workplaces without the employer’s consent when an employer violates the law, but NGOs argued that violations were hard to prove and vulnerable workers were unlikely to be aware of this right.
In one instance an employer told a migrant worker owed four months’ salary in back wages that he would provide the needed approval only in exchange for a payment that exceeded the back wages. In another case a Cambodian agricultural migrant who had not been paid in three years could not leave her job because she did not have the employer’s approval. The employer told media that paying fines for violating the labor standards law was less expensive than paying the back wages.
In March migrant workers seeking to overturn the restriction on changing workplaces filed a constitutional appeal. As of September the case was pending.
Migrant workers lose their legal status if they lose their job and do not find another employer within three months. Authorities may then cancel the work permit, forcing the worker either to return home or to remain in the country illegally. This caused difficulties for seasonal workers such as those involved in agriculture or construction. Migrant workers did not have access to lists of companies that were hiring when they wanted to change jobs, which made it more difficult for these workers to change jobs freely.
To prevent violations and improve working conditions for migrant and foreign workers, the government provided pre-employment training to newly arrived foreign workers, workplace adaptation training to those who changed workplaces, and training to employers who hired foreign workers. The government funded 44 Foreign Workers Support Centers nationwide to provide foreign workers with counseling services in 16 languages, Korean language and cultural programs, shelter, and free health-care services. It also ran a call center to help foreign workers resolve grievances. The government also funded multicultural family and migrant plus centers to provide foreign workers, international marriage immigrants, and other multicultural families with a one-stop service center providing immigration, welfare, and education services.
The law requires severance payments to migrant workers who have worked in the country for at least one year. Many workers, however, reported difficulty in receiving severance pay prior to their departure and stated they did not receive payments even after returning to their country of origin, due to banking regulations and delinquent employers. NGOs confirmed many departing migrants never received these payments and that the COVID-19 pandemic magnified these difficulties.
Some NGOs reported migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation because the law excludes regulations on working hours, holidays, and benefits for the agricultural, livestock, and fisheries industries that had large numbers of migrant workers. Foreign laborers sometimes faced physical abuse and exploitation by employers in the form of longer working hours, fewer days off, and lower wages than their local counterparts. According to NGOs, the government only occasionally investigated reports of poor or abusive working conditions for migrants, and court cases were often dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
NGOs reported that although employers were prohibited from providing makeshift accommodations, some violated this prohibition, providing migrant workers with substandard accommodations made of plastic panels. After heavy rain led to the flooding of the Sanyang Reservoir in Gyeonggi Province in August, an estimated 100 persons were displaced, of whom 80 percent were migrant workers living in “plastic houses” while working on farms near the reservoir. Employers justified the accommodations, noting they lived there together with the workers and that the lodgings were only temporary to respond to busy work schedules. Workers’ rights advocates argued the plastic houses were illegal.
The government sets occupational health and safety standards and is responsible for monitoring industry adherence. Under the law workers in every sector have the right to remove themselves from situations of danger without jeopardizing their employment. As of July the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency, responsible for enforcement of these laws, had directly or indirectly inspected 299,081 workplaces. The penalties were commensurate with those for analogous crimes such as gross negligence.
In January broad reforms to the Occupational Safety and Health Act took effect. Some of the revisions included higher fines for workplace fatalities and increased penalties for health and safety violations. The revised regulations also prohibited companies from subcontracting out specific types of dangerous work, such as metal plating, that involve harmful heavy metals such as mercury and lead.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, there were 109,242 work-related accidents in 2019, an increase of 6.8 percent from 2018, and 2,020 occupational deaths, down from 2,142 in 2018. The agency’s director acknowledged that challenges remained in further reducing the level of fatal accidents to that on par with other advanced countries; ensuring the safety of workers vulnerable to occupational accidents and health risks, including older workers, women, migrants, and those working in small workplaces; and reducing safety gaps between large enterprises and small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as between parent companies and subcontractors. Workers’ rights advocates said that contract or temporary workers were also vulnerable to workplace injury.
From September 2019 until May, five fatal accidents occurred at Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., one of the world’s largest shipbuilders. The Ministry of Employment and Labor determined the company lacked executive support for safety management, failed to abide by basic safety regulations, and did not properly educate employees about risks. After inspections in July, the ministry imposed a nominal fine of 152 million won ($131,000) for 165 safety violations.