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Union membership ratefalls to lowest in years

By Kim Sung-mi (smkim@heraldm.com), The Korea Herald, 24 December 2003

The labor union membership and the number of trade unions in Korea increased in 2002 from a year earlier, with the union affiliation rate at 11.6 percent of the total salaried work force, the Ministry of Labor said yesterday.

A ministry report said 6,506 labor groups existed by the end of last year, up 5.8 percent from the year before. An additional 37,300 workers joined labor groups to raise the total membership to 1.6 million.

But the union membership rate, the portion of unionized workers out of the total salaried work force, inched down 0.4 percentage point from 2001 to 11.6 percent, the lowest level in years, as a strong economy triggered overall labor market growth, the ministry said.

The membership rate peaked in 1989. Since 1997, the figures have been about 12 percent.

The union membership tends to be concentrated in large companies, figures indicated.

Trade unions with more than 500 members comprised only 6.6 percent of the overall labor groups in number but the workers in the category took 72.5 percent of the nation’s overall union membership.

In contrast, small unions with less than 50 members were abundant, taking about half of the overall union registrations, but their membership composed only 3.3 percent of the total unionized labor.

Trade unions at large companies have more power in negotiation with management. It is true that employees in small enterprises, such as subcontractors of conglomerates, are facing worse labor conditions, said Ryu Keong-seok, a manager at the Federation of Korea Trade Unions Research Center, a think tank affiliated with the nation’s largest labor federation.

According to the ministry report, the FKTU had 876,900 members last year, down 0.1 percent from in 2001. The FKTU’s 4,063 affiliated labor groups had 62.5 percent of the total in terms of number and 54.6 percent in terms of membership volume.

The second-largest labor organization, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which businesses criticize for its often militant protest tactics, saw its membership increase 6.5 percent to 685,100. Its 1,529 affiliates comprised 23.5 percent of the total in number and 42.7 percent in membership size. It has a larger number of strong unions than the FKTU.

Major KCTU affiliates are labor groups in Hyundai Motor, Kia Motors, hospitals, public-sector workplaces and newspapers.