Worlds of Education

#UDHR70 - “Trade Union Rights are Human Rights: South Korean Teachers Deprived of Union Representation”, by Hyunsu Hwang

published 15 December 2018 updated 16 January 2019
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On December 10, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in his speech to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Human Rights Day: "Among countries that went through colonial rule, dictatorship, and war, there are few countries that have the level of South Korean human rights." He added, “there is still a very long way to go.” Yes. He is right. We have a long way to go.

On the same day, the leadership of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union (KTU, or Jeongyojo) held a press conference requesting the government to respect teachers’ trade union rights and immediately withdraw the decertification of the KTU. The KTU held sit-in protest for 176 days in tents on the road in front of the Presidential Office.

For more than 30 years (1961-1993), under Korea’s military dictatorships, schools were just centres of propaganda, where the military government required educators to propagate its ideologies. Teachers were not permitted to speak about these regimes and policies, and most teachers complied with the government’s dictates. On May 28th, 1989, some brave teachers rejected their role as puppets controlled by the dictatorship. They gathered to launch the first nationwide independent teachers’ union, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union. The military government immediately made the KTU illegal. Hundreds of teachers were arrested and imprisoned by the regime. In all, more than 1,500 members were dismissed for joining the union and speaking up for teachers, students, and parents. In these brutal mass firings, there were still many unionized teachers in school who just didn’t want to reveal that they were members. The Ministry of Education sent an official document to school principals and ordered them to hunt down teachers who might join the union. In the document, the Ministry mentioned, “how to identify unionized teachers in your school; 1) teachers who refuse a bribe from parents, 2) teachers who are popular among students, 3) teachers who are trying to publish a year book, 4) teachers who make a big effort for teaching, 5) teachers who are trying to enhance students’ creativity, 6) teachers who have much consulting time with students who are in trouble, and so forth.”

Despite fierce resistance from the authorities, the KTU continued with its struggle to have the right to form an independent union to represent teachers. In 1999, after 10 years of intense struggle, the KTU was finally recognized as a legal union. The KTU has been the sole independent union to represent teachers’ voice and has spoken for teachers, students, and parents ever since. The KTU strongly opposed all the education polices based on neoliberal ideologies such as teacher evaluation system, merit payment, high stakes standardized testing, and a hierarchical school system.

In the meantime, the KTU was targeted by conservative politicians. Park Geun-hye was inaugurated on February 25, 2013, as the 18th President of the Republic of Korea. She had a very hostile attitude towards the KTU and compared unionized teachers to ‘harmful insects’. The government deregistered the KTU on October 24, 2013, because the KTU allowed nine dismissed teachers to maintain their union membership. Following the union’s deregistration, the government adopted a series of measures designed to incapacitate the KTU: the termination of the collective bargaining agreements, the suspension of the check-off system for union dues, and so on. The government cancelled the positions of the 72 full-time union officials throughout the nation who had worked in the KTU head office or its provincial offices and ordered them to return to their school positions. It threatened to fire the union officials if they did not follow its orders. 34 union officials refused to return to their schools after leaving their union positions. In 2016, the Park Geun-hye government fired the 34 KTU executive union officials. They are still dismissed. The KTU and Education International have demanded the immediate reinstatement of the 34 dismissed KTU officials. The Korean Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case of the deregistration of the KTU.

In March 2014, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association expressed its deep concern regarding the deregistration of the KTU and urged the government of Korea “to take the necessary measures to ensure the re-certification of the KTU without delay.” On 19 October 2017, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also expressed its concerns on this case and recommended that “the State party make the necessary legislative amendments to guarantee the right of all persons to form and join trade unions freely.” Mr. Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, was invited to undertake an official mission from 20 to 29 January 2016. In concluding his visit, he also expressed his grave concerns regarding the overall labour situation in South Korea. In his last statement on January 29th, 2016, he stated: “I am concerned about the recent outlawing of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers union (KTU), because it retained nine dismissed teachers as members. International human rights law is clear that the dissolution of a trade union should only occur in extremely serious cases, as a measure of last resort. I do not consider that the case of the KTU met this high threshold.”

Article 23(4) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) clearly states, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” 60,000 South Korean teachers no longer have trade union representation. The Korean government still doesn’t comply with article 80 of the 1966 ILO/UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Teachers that teachers should be free to exercise all civic rights generally enjoyed by the citizens and should be eligible to public offices. The Korean law prevents teachers from doing any political activities and engagement. Many teachers who tried to be involved in political activities got fired or punished. Even in education superintendent elections, teachers’ involvement is prohibited. Article 23(4) of the UDHR provides for the right to take part in politics. However, every citizen should fully enjoy political rights.

The history of the KTU is the history of human rights in Korea. The KTU was a 10-year illegal teachers’ union, a 14-year legal union, and a 5-year decertified union. The KTU will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2019. It will continue to speak up for teachers and to fight for quality education for all regardless of its legal status. However, Korean teachers have been deprived of universal human rights. They are not free to exercise all their civic rights only because they are teachers. As President Moon mentioned, we have a long way to go. The day has come to recognize the KTU as a legal union to move one step forward for human rights in Korea.


10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration remains a relevant inspiration for educators and trade unionists worldwide, as it guarantees the right to form unions, freedom of expression and the right of all to quality education. Human rights requires an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. For this special occasion, Education International is releasing a series of blogs bringing voices and thoughts of unionists reflecting on struggles and accomplishments in this domain. The blogs reflect the continued commitment of education unionists, in every part of the world, in every community, to promote, defend and advance human rights and freedoms for the benefit of all.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.