The President of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union KTU (Jeon-Gyo-Jo) has been on hunger strike since 23 February to protest the recent dismissal of a number of KTU members for not cooperating in carrying out standardized tests which the government introduced last autumn. To publicize his hunger strike, KTU President Jung Jin-hoo is camping out right across the street from the Presidential Palace, known as the “Blue House,” in Seoul.
EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen met with Jung Jin-hoo to convey the moral support of the international teachers’ community. “While we do not deny the right of governments to develop and pursue education reform plans, we cannot accept teachers’organisations not being consulted on those plans, let alone their members being fired for exercising their professional freedom,” according to van Leeuwen.
The dismissal of KTU members who, according to the public authorities, had not “followed orders,” and had “encouraged” students not to take the national test, thereby “infringing” on students’ right to learn, is another low point in relations between the South Korean government and the KTU, which is considered one of the more militant trade union organisations in the country.
In November 2008 the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology unilaterally revoked the existing collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ trade unions, claiming that the agreement was an obstacle to enforcing government education policies. It also exempted employers in the rapidly-expanding private school sector from responsibility to engage in collective bargaining with the education unions.
As a result, “social dialogue” in the South Korean education sector has come to a complete standstill. Furthermore, the government has started persecuting teachers for participating in election campaigns of public officials, which is illegal under South Korean law. Two leaders of the KTU Seoul Branch, accused of having collected funds to support the election of the Seoul Education Superintendent, were arrested and have been detained since December 2008.
“It is unthinkable for any government to achieve their educational goals while treating their teaching profession the way the South Korean government does. Restricting their professional freedoms, denying their collective bargaining rights, thwarting social dialogue, dismissing and persecuting educators – this is a dead end road,” said van Leeuwen at a meeting between members of the education committee of the South Korean Parliament and the local media on 10 March.
He emphasized that quality public education for all Koreans can be achieved only when the public authorities and the education unions engage in a meaningful dialogue on the best way forward.
“Teachers are dedicated professionals who are adamant when it comes to protecting their students’ interests. Governments should learn to understand this rather than resort to suppressive measures,” van Leeuwen said.
He added that at this time Education International has no choice but to pursue the complaint it has lodged against the South Korean government with the International Labour Organisation.