In our November 2009 edition of the Asia-Pacific Employee Relations Review,1 we reported on the Korean Labour Minister’s announcement that certain legal provisions with a significant effect on labour unions and employers with unionised workforces would come into effect in early 2010.

On 1 January 2010, the Korean National Assembly passed a bill containing significant amendments to those provisions, and setting out the timetable for implementation in 2010 and 2011.

Background

The provisions in question were in fact enacted 13 years ago but were not put into effect, due to strong union opposition. The provisions deal with:

  1. prohibiting employers from paying remuneration to full-time union officials (currently this is permitted), and
  2. giving legal permission for multiple unions to be established at a single worksite (currently each enterprise may legally only have one trade union).

Amendments and implementation timetable

The prohibition on employers paying remuneration to full-time union officials will come into effect on 1 July 2010. Hence, full-time union personnel will no longer be permitted to receive remuneration from employers. However, pursuant to the recent amendments, a new system will come into effect, which provides for ‘paid time-off’ for employees carrying out prescribed union-related functions, including consultation and bargaining with the employer, grievance handling and occupational safety activities, and the functions of maintaining and managing the union for the sound development of industrial relations. The total amount of ‘paid time-off’ that can be granted by an employer, and the number of employees who can share the time-off between them, are subject to prescribed limits, which are based on the number of union members in the business.

The ability for multiple unions to be established at a single worksite will come into effect on 1 July 2011. However, the amendments provide that if multiple unions are established, then the employer may require the unions to establish a single window for bargaining. In this case, the unions must decide upon the bargaining representative and, if they cannot agree, then the majority union will act as the representative union. The representative union will be authorised to sign collective agreements on behalf of all unions involved in bargaining.

Implications for employers

It is expected that the implementation of the new provisions will lead to disputes between management and unions. It is therefore important that employers are familiar with the detail of the new provisions.

Employers will also need to prepare themselves for the provisions coming into effect, including:

  1. Identifying any full-time union officials currently receiving remuneration from the company, and preparing for the prohibition that will come into effect on 1 July 2010. This is likely to involve discussions with the union regarding whether such officials will continue in a full-time capacity, and hence be remunerated by the union rather than the employer, or whether the officials will be full-time employees of the company and permitted to take paid ‘time off’ within prescribed limits in order to perform permitted union activities as prescribed by the legislation.
  2. Putting in place a strategy to deal with the possibility that multiple unions may seek to represent employees on site from 1 July 2011, including considering whether multiple bargaining channels are desirable, or whether the employer would insist on a single bargaining channel in such a scenario.