Statement by the Workers International Struggles Initiatives and Workers Commission 5 of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle  

The Workers International Struggles Initiatives and Commission 5 of the International League of Peoples Struggles salute the Korean Construction Workers Union (KCWU) and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) for their determination to defend workers against unsafe conditions and repressive government. We absolutely condemn the Yoon government for its union-busting attack on Korean workers.

President Yoon Seokyeol last year crushed a strike by the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Division who were campaigning for safe rates for moving freight. This year he decided to attack the KCWU, accusing them of “joint racketeering”, “blackmail” and being a “mob”, gangsters and criminals, because they campaigned for civilised working conditions in their very dangerous industry.

On May 1, 2023, Yang Hoedong, a KCWU leader in the Gangwon region, set himself on fire outside a court to protest against the government’s repression. The local prosecution had requested arrest warrants for Yang and two other construction union officials. They were under investigation for forcing construction companies to hire unionized workers and collecting union membership dues, which the prosecution describes as intimidation and extortion.

Since the beginning of 2023, police have conducted 13 raids on the construction union offices, 40 personal searches of union members, and 950 summonses, detaining 17 people.

The search warrants were issued on the basis that a company feared that a Collective Bargaining Agreement, if signed, would cause massive damage to the company’s operations. The government is saying that workers shouldn’t strike, and shouldn’t make high-pressure demands to the company during negotiations. This is a direct breach of the workers’ rights to collective bargaining, enshrined in International Labour Organisation Convention 98.

Construction work in South Korea

The vast majority of construction workers in South Korea are day workers, exposed to constant job insecurity. Workers are forced to bribe informal managers called “Oyaji”, who decide who gets what jobs.

Construction sites are unsafe, rampant with illegal practices, leading to nearly 400 workers dying on construction sites every year. The KCWU is fighting to transform construction sites into safe workplaces, eliminating the illegal multi-level subcontracting employment structure, and ensuring the basic labor rights of construction workers.

For example, several people were killed when a demolition project in Gwangju led to the building’s collapse. The original contract was awarded at 280,000 won (US$216) per square meter. The demolition was subcontracted seven times, until the bottom level only received 50,000 won (US$39) per square meter.

The construction unions are continuing their struggle, by demanding the resignations of President Yoon Seokyeol, of the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, of the Police Chief, and the dissolution of the ‘Task Force to Tackle Corruption in the Construction Industry’. KCTU members organize a memorial ceremony every evening, at the Seoul National University Hospital Funeral Home.

On the evening of May 16, a joint memorial ceremony was held to mourn the victims of the Itaewon disaster and the martyr Yang Hoedong. On October 29, 2022, just before Halloween, 159 people were crushed to death in the streets of Itaewon, Seoul. Despite various pre-warnings about a massive crowd gathering, both police and local and metropolitan administrations did not prepare to manage the situation, which led to the disaster. The bereaved families have organized themselves and are demanding the dismissal of the Minister of the Interior and Safety, and a thorough investigation into the tragedy.

The Yoon Seokyeol government prevented the families of the victims of the Itaewon tragedy from setting up a memorial near Seoul City Hall, and continues to engage in malicious propaganda, against the bereaved families. May 16 was the 200th day after the tragedy, so the KCWU organized a joint memorial with the bereaved family members, after which 30,000 construction workers slept in the street, to express their protest against the government.

Next day, May 17, construction workers rallied and then marched towards the presidential office, until they were blocked by a wall made by police. On the other side of the police barrier, the rightwing were also holding a demonstration, repeatedly chanting, “Disband the KCTU! Disband the KCWU!”

A massive social conflict is unfolding in South Korea, driven by a vicious anti-people policy of the new Yoon government. We call on workers all around the world to express your solidarity with the South Korean workers.

Send your message to:

Yang Kyeung-soo


Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU)

[email protected]

Authorised by WORKINS, ILPS Commission 5, June 22, 2023. 

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