EU-South Korea trade deal stumbles over workers' rights

Thursday, March 21, 2019: The EU-Korea FTA came into force back in 2011, the first of the “new generation” trade agreements made by the EU. While the corporates have had a huge success with the deal, its promise to improve workers' rights has not been delivered.

This week the South Korean Employers Federation said it was “furious” at the prospect that the country’s National Assembly might ratify the core International Labour Organisation Conventions on the Right to Organise and the Right to Collective Bargaining, which is a commitment in the FTA.

On January 21, 2019, Michael Reiterer, EU ambassador to the Republic of Korea, said that the government needs to take more measures to fulfil the promises in the FTA. He expressed concerns over Korea’s insufficient efforts for core convention ratification, saying it should show at least some progress, given the FTA was signed eight years ago.

South Korean unions want the ratification of the ILO Conventions on the right to organise and to collective bargaining to enable industry-by-industry bargaining, to allow broader objectives for strikes and bargaining, to reduce or remove civil and criminal penalties for strikes, and to allow union action in essential services.

South Korean employers, in contrast, want to prohibit workplace occupation tactics, want less frequent collective bargaining, want to be able to use strike-breaking labour, and want tougher rules for strike votes.

The EU has refused to make labour and environment chapters in the “new generation” FTAs enforceable through trade sanctions in the same way as the other chapters in its agreements. A year ago a European Commission discussion paper stated that failure to fulfil the social and environmental commitments would not be addressed by trade sanctions, but instead by diplomatic pressure, as has been happening, but not working, in South Korea.

There are already concerns that the labour and environment chapters proposed EU-Australia FTA will suffer the same fate and not be enforceable.

Update: On Wednesday March 27, 2019, over 10,000 members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions rallied outside the National Assembly to urge that it ratify the four core ILO Conventions.