Korea: Hypocrisy exposed - Samsung boss walks free while union leaders denied justice

Trade unions around the world are today demanding the immediate release of KCTU President Han Sang-gyun from prison, and the withdrawal of the charges against the former General Secretary of KCTU, Lee Young-joo, as international attention turns to Korea with the start of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

This week an appeal court in Seoul, South Korea, controversially freed Samsung Electronics’ Vice-Chairman Lee Jae-yong, after barely a year in jail, while justice is denied for trade union leaders.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary said, “Samsung operates above the law in too many countries, denying rights and justice to millions of workers. Lee Jae-yong could now be acquitted of charges for corruption of billions of dollars, and is free to oversee Samsung’s business empire, while trade union leaders are detained and have been threatened with charges fighting for the rights of 6.4 million irregular workers earning barely USD 6.90 an hour. Only by immediately freeing KCTU President Han, and withdrawing the charges against former KCTU General Secretary Lee, will South Korea re-build trust in justice, rights and freedom for working people.”

Han Sang-gyun has now been imprisoned for nearly two years simply for exercising his democratic right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has noted that Han’s deprivation of liberty is arbitrary and has called for his immediate release and compensation. It has further requested the government of Korea to avoid the abuse of criminal proceedings in the context of peaceful protests. Despite the repeated calls of international trade unions, Han was not included in the special pardon granted by the Korean President last December. Instead, on 31 December 2017, former KCTU General Secretary Lee Young-joo was arrested in the hospital by the police after a ten-day hunger strike at the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Party to end her self-imposed house arrest. Both Han and Lee have been charged over their role in the people’s rally on 14 November 2015. The rally was organised to protest against the former Park Geun-hye government’s regressive labour law reform to further casualise labour, which the new government of President Moon pledged to end.

Lee Young-joo was dismissed as a teacher in 2016, and the Korean Teachers’ Union – de-certified by the Park Geun-hye government – has not been able to have its certification reinstated under Moon Jae-in’s government. Lee will be sent for trial between February and March.

The international trade union movement welcomed the election of President Moon Jae-in and had expected him – as a former human rights lawyer – to implement his campaign promises by revoking the anti-labour policies of the Park Geun-hye government, ratifying ILO Conventions 87 and 98, and releasing Han Sang-gyun. President Moon has yet to fulfill these commitments.

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