Statement | Global Worker Rights

AFL-CIO Statement on the Repression of Labor Rights in Korea

In advance of President Yoon’s State Visit to the United States, the AFL-CIO calls on both governments to take concrete actions to reverse the Republic of Korea’s dangerous course of repression against workers and to use their leadership roles to advance the rights of workers at home and around the world.

April 24, 2023

President Joe Biden will host President Yoon Suk Yeol in Washington, D.C. Thursday to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance. While the visit is intended to represent the government’s shared values and respect for human rights, the government of the ROK continues to deny the fundamental labor rights to freedom of association, to collectively bargain and to strike. Under President Yoon’s administration, the government has taken aggressive measures to sharply curtail worker and union power, including by arresting and detaining trade union leaders and activists. 

The visit follows the second Summit for Democracy last month, which was co-hosted by both governments. The Summit featured labor unions, with events held in Washington D.C. and Zambia affirming and amplifying the essential role of unions in democracies around the world. At the conclusion of the Summit, Presidents Biden and Yoon announced that the ROK will host a future, third Summit for Democracy. 

As these two governments take a leading role to promote democracy around the world, however, the ROK continues to carry out a long-standing repressive campaign against workers and their unions. This dangerous behavior has been previously condemned by the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) supervisory system and an experts panel established under the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and new complaints have already been filed with the ILO. Moreover, with recent arrests and other efforts by government authorities to suppress trade union activities in Korea, it is evident that, under the Yoon Administration, the already difficult situation for workers and unions in Korea continues to deteriorate. 

The ROK’s repression of worker trade union rights stands in stark contrast with all that President Biden has done to support and advance workers rights in the United States. While recognizing that employers in the US commit labor rights abuses, the US government is, in contrast to the ROK, making a good faith effort to use its executive power to protect workers rights with the tools available to it. Therefore, despite their claims on the world stage, these governments’ democratic values are fundamentally incongruent in practice.  

The ROK is not ready to lead any effort to coordinate strong democracies or enjoy favorable treatment as a trade partner until and unless it itself allows workers to fully exercise their right to act collectively and form unions. If these two presidents intend to fulfill their promise to support and promote resilient democracies, they themselves must urgently cease the suppression of workers and trade unionists in Korea and ensure an enabling environment for working people around the world to exercise their fundamental rights.