As South Korea steps up campaign to lead ILO, trade unions criticise labour rights violations

Former South Korean Foreign Minister Kyung-wha Kang

 ROME -- South Korean former foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha has stepped up campaigning to become head of the International Labour Organization against strong rival bids from IFAD president Gilbert Houngbo and Greg Vines of Australia. But trade union leaders in Seoul say she lacks relevant experience and that the Asian country's poor record on labour rights, including the Korean authorities failure to prevent employees being worked to death, disqualifies her from the post. 

 Ms Kang, 66, travelled to Mexico in late November and met with Mexican officials including Secretary for Labour and Social Security, Luisa Maria Alcade, as well as under secretary Carmen Moreno Toscano. "They discussed bilateral cooperation and the presentation of ideas to reinforce the ILO in the future," a Mexican foreign ministry statement said. "Mexico will continue to listen to the candidates."  Ms Kang is jockeying for support against rival bids to become head of the Geneva-based body from former Togo prime minister Houngbo, Greg Vines of Australia, an ILO deputy director general, as well as former French Labor Minister Muriel Penicaud and Mthunzi Mdwaba of South Africa, vice president of the International Organization of Employers. Houngbo has outraged IFAD staff by campaigning for the ILO just a short time after he was re-elected to a second term as head of the poverty-busting Rome-based UN agency.
 The South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-moon, travelled to Africa to campaign for Ms Kang, seeking to drum up support in Uganda, Rwanda and Cameroon.
 Despite such lobbying, critics question whether South Korea as a country is ready to claim leadership in the field of labor, citing the country’s track record in the violation of labor rights.
 Since 2015, South Korea has received the second lowest grade in the six-point Global Rights Index published annually by the International Trade Union Confederation, which rates countries based on compliance with workers’ rights.
 Koreans also work among the longest hours of developed countries. Death by overwork has become a serious issue, known as “kwarosa” locally.
 Last year, South Korea ranked third in annual working hours among the 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, longer by about 200 hours than the average of OECD countries. For all those hours worked, however, Seoul’s labor productivity is in the lower ranks of the group.
 “Becoming a developed country of labor matter doesn’t come at free cost,” said Oh Hyun-joo, spokeswoman for the minor progressive Justice Party, was quoted as saying by the Korea Herald. “In order to become a country that produces a leader of an international organization, it needs to meet the minimum (labor) qualifications domestically.”
 She mentioned the case of Yang Kyung-soo, chief of the KCTU, who was arrested and held in jail for 84 days for staging mass rallies in violation of COVID-19 regulations. “It is shameful for the country to go after the ILO bid when the head of the labor union is under arrest,” she said. 
 Last week Kyung-Soo was sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for two years, for organizing mass rallies earlier this year in violation of COVID-19 regulations, yonhap news agency reported.
 Ms Oh also took issue with the notion that South Korea still has not ratified the last of the ILO’s eight key conventions, No. 105 on the abolition of forced labor. Despite calls from labor activists around the world, officials view that it is still premature to abolish No. 105, as it conflicts with the nation’s security law, the Korea Herald reported.
 South Korea joined the ILO in 1991 but is among 11 countries out of 187 ILO member states that have yet to ratify No. 105.
 Three core ILO conventions, No. 87 on the freedom of association, No. 98 on the right to organize and collective bargaining and No. 29 on the prohibition of forced labor, were finally ratified in February after years of debate, but observers view Korea as still lagging behind international standards in protecting labor rights.
  A veteran of multilateral diplomacy, Ms Kang is widely respected for her leadership as the country’s first female foreign minister from 2017 to 2021, during which she took part in historic summits with North Korea. Ms Kang previously enjoyed a long career at the United Nations, serving as a senior policy adviser for both former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
 Ms Kang touted relevant labor experience on her vision statement, which includes South Korea’s ratification of three key ILO conventions during her term, the ministry’s organizational changes to ensure gender equality and work-life balance and the establishment of the union for staff at diplomatic missions overseas.
 However the KCTU, one of the country’s two umbrella labor organizations, condemned Kang’s qualifications, saying her experience and stated vision are “quite far” from the right job description to lead the ILO.
 “Reflecting her lack of experience in the field of labor, Kang has failed to present her views on the ILO’s most important role,” the KCTU said in a statement, stressing that a core function of the ILO is to establish international labor standards and watch and oversee their implementation.
Gilbert Houngbo (left)
South African candidate Prof. Mdwaba