In 1987, after decades of repression, more than 3.500 labour strikes hit the Republic of Korea. Workers from heavy industries and other sectors engaged in demonstrations to protest for better wages, better income distribution, social justice and democracy. Although the desire for a more democratic country should not be considered a direct determinant of the structural characteristics of industrial relations, unions entered the pro-democracy movement on a pragmatic and strategic manner. The demonstrations eventually undermined the control mode of the labor market by State and employers. In late 1987 there were direct elections and Roh Tae Woo was elected president.
Several reforms were ...view middle of the document...
From 1987, the unions were successful in collective wage negotiations with employers and industrial wages increased rapidly. Between 1986 and 1989, the number of unions tripled, and the number of unionized workers reached approximately 2 million. The labor disputes increased about five-fold, while the workweek declined from 51.9 to 47.5 hours in 1993 without losses of in workplaces or in real wages. Yet, the Korean labour legislation was not significantly altered.
Throughout the 1990s, the number of union members began to decline as a result of the loss of strength of the union movement in small and medium enterprises due to the dropping number of regular workers. Labor movements in South Korea traditionally received greater support for regular workers, and had come to face the dramatic increase in the number of non-regular workers. It increased conflicts between regular and non-regular workers. The unions of regular workers opposed to unionization of non-regulars. Faced with those conflicts, nonetheless, major national unions supported the inclusion of non-regular workers and their legislative protection against poor working conditions and unstable employment situation. Unions started to demand more protection and social welfare.
The unions were unable to affect the labor law through political channels by being legally barred from participating in any political activity, including campaign financing. The chaebols were able to shape the development of labor relations, directly influencing lawmakers with substantial financial contributions. As the unions had no voice in the making of labor policies, most demonstrations can be seen as reactions in response to laws implemented without their participation. Despite the substantial wage growth in the 1990s, the journey of Korean weekly working was still long and occupational accident rates were high if compared to other industrialized nations. The increasing white collars unionized workers entered the sphere of labor relations with a larger political agenda, which helped unions to obtain the support of the middle class. The relatively high level of education led to greater assertiveness and confidence of workers and contributed substantially to the development of class consciousness. Labour unions began to press towards more political freedom and participation.
An inflection for labour relations was the economic crisis of 1997. The Asian financial crisis spread to South Korea in early 1997 with the bankruptcy of Hanbo Steel, the 14th largest company in that country. While banks tried to recover losses, deeply troubled Southeast Asian foreign financial institutions began to deny short-term loans. The great increase in demand for dollars caused a currency crisis, followed by capital liquidation. The stock market, which had reached its highest level (1027.4) in late 1994, fell to 350.68 in 1997. At the end, a general crisis befell the country.
The crisis, and the subsequent structural reforms...