Trade justice: historic opportunity as European Union calls for review of Korea’s neglect

The Republic of Korea’s flagrant failure to comply with the terms of the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is currently under review. In an unprecedented move, the EU called for the constitution of a Panel of Experts to conduct a three-month inquiry into the EU-Korea dispute on labour rights. The Panel was constituted on 19 December 2019.

Based on ILO jurisprudence, the EU considers that Korea is in breach of the FTA’s Sustainable Development chapter by not ratifying fundamental and up-to-date ILO Conventions nine years after the FTA’s entry into force, restricting freedom of association in various ways, including by interfering with the internal rules of trade unions.

“This is a decisive moment, and the EU must seize it to begin laying the foundations for a just model of trade. The failure of past trade agreements to ensure fair production and trade with decent work have fueled the loss of trust in politics and the collapse of the multilateral trading system. There are promising signs of change, but now the European institutions’ new leaders need to deliver. If they are serious about addressing these structural issues, the international labour movement will work with them every step of the way,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC.

The Korean government’s use of legal provisions to curtail and prosecute unions goes against its commitments which has notably been the focus of long-standing ILO condemnation. The ITUC strongly protests the fact that the EU has backtracked on its initial proposal to include these provisions in the list of breaches.

As noted repeatedly by the ILO, the Republic of Korea has failed to guarantee the right to freedom of association protected under the ILO Constitution, the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and relevant ILO Conventions. The ITUC notes that recent labour law proposals by the Korean government are contrary to their obligations under the ILO, raising concerns about the government’s lack of willingness to implement these conventions.

“Trade itself is not the problem. It has the potential to improve the conditions of working people. However, if labour provisions are simply included to whitewash agreements that establish an imbalanced system that puts the interests of unaccountable corporations ahead of those of people and planet, the agreements will further fuel the age of anger,” said Burrow.

The ITUC calls on the Panel of Experts to agree a clear timetable for the resolution of all examined issues after consultation with the ILO and in accordance with ILO interpretations. The Panel of Experts should take the latest developments into account and warn the government of Korea that adopting the planned labour law amendments, which are inconsistent with fundamental Conventions of the ILO, would constitute a further breach of the EU-Korea FTA.

The amicus brief submitted by the ITUC, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) is available here.