A leading South Korean labour activist has been rushed to hospital following more than two weeks on hunger strike.
Kim Jungnam, who is president of the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU), launched a hunger strike on 15 January outside the offices of the Presidential Transition Committee.
He was protesting against the dismissal of 137 government workers, including himself and the KGEU General-Secretary Gwak Gyu-woon, for trade union activities.
Jungnam and his KGEU colleagues are also calling for legal recognition as a registered trade union and for the Korean government to respect core international labour standards.
Jungnam is currently recovering in hospital following his collapse but despite the duration of the protest, the government has so far refused to enter into a dialogue with the KGEU.
KGEU vice presidents have vowed to step in to continue the hunger strike until their demands are met.
“Government employees are ones who are in charge of quality public services.
“If the transition committee and government want to have better public services and democratic society, they must take action to acknowlege KGEU as a social partner and principal agent,” said a KGEU spokesperson.
The Labourstart website is leading a campaign to demand the reinstatement of the sacked workers and the recognition of the union by incoming South Korean president Park Guenhye.
After just a few days, the campaign has more than 8,000 signatures.
The KGEU was formed in September 2009 following a merger of public sector employee unions.
With over 140,000 members across South Korea, KGEU is guided by the principles of reforming public office and ending corruption. However, the government has twice refused to legalise the union on the basis that its members included dismissed workers.
The majority of KGEU members were fired for having protested against the enactment of the ‘Public Officials’ Trade Union Act’ in 2004 which restricts basic labour rights for government employees. Many others were also dismissed for publicly criticising government policy on trade union rights.
In addition, since coming to power in February 2008, the outgoing government Lee Myung-Bak has downsized the public sector and outsourced more and more public services.
In a recent rally on 19 January, attended by 700 KGEU officers, the union called once more on President-Elect Guenhye and the Presidential Transition Committee to normalise labour relations in the government sector, improve working conditions, and ensure freedom of association and trade union rights.
Guenhye, who is the daughter of Korea’s former military dictator Park Chung-he, will take office on 25 February. She has pledged to commit to social integration.
However, Sharan Burrow, General-Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called on the Korean government to enter immediate dialogue:
“No government should stand by and watch the desperation of a union leader threaten his own life. The answer is dialogue.
“The world is watching with horror the denial of dialogue and conflict resolution that is driving union leaders to take such action. We petition the government to intervene to resolve this dispute.”