World News

South Korea shaken by civil servants' labour move

SEOUL (Reuters) - The South Korean government said on Wednesday it was a matter of grave concern that more than 100,000 civil servants joined a militant labour group known for mass street protests and disrupting industry.

The move is a setback for President Lee Myung-bak’s government which sees such groups as dragging down the economy and scaring away investors.

On Tuesday, three civil servant groups voted to join the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), breathing new life into the umbrella labour group that had been struggling in recent months due to defections of members who saw it as more focused on engaging in battles with the conservative government than on seeking to improve the welfare of workers.

“We will review whether the united government workers’ unions can be an appropriate dialogue partner now that it has become a part of the KCTU, with its lack of political neutrality,” the Public Administration and Security Ministry said in a statement.

The government has been pushing reforms to allow greater flexibility in a rigid labour market, including one to double the term to four years that firms can hire contract workers.

The civil servants who joined the KCTU work in a wide array of jobs in regional governments as well as in the court system.

They come from a group of 280,000 low-ranking civil servants who are allowed to join organised labour. There are nearly 1 million civil servants in the country, a government workers’ labour group said.

The economic downturn has led to a realignment of labour in South Korea with workers at companies including major telecom KT parting ways with the KCTU, saying they see it as too radical to strike compromises that keep businesses afloat and jobs secure.

Labour unions were a major force in the pro-democracy struggles of the late 1980s that pushed aside decades of autocratic rulers and many groups are still at the forefront of political protests.

Labour unrest and laws that make lay-offs costly are seen as adding to the cost of doing business in South Korea, decreasing the competitiveness of Asia’s fourth-largest economy against regional rivals high-tech Japan and low-cost China.

The number of work days lost to strikes has been on a decline but it still outstrips that in competing economies in the region. In 2007, according to International Labour Organisation data, South Korea had six times more strikes than in Japan, whose population is more than double the size.

The KCTU is particularly strong in the auto industry, leading car makers such as Hyundai Motor Corp to move more production overseas to avoid labour conflict at home.

The addition of the civil servants is a major boost for the KCTU, which claims to already have a membership of 750,000. But it falls short of outranking the top labour group in the country, the more moderate Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which claims to have more than 1 million members.

Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Shin Ji-eun; Editing by Sugita Katyal