Labor Protections in the U.S.-South Korea Trade Agreement

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HardhatThe U.S.-South Korea trade agreement sets high standards for protection of workers’ rights in trade agreements – including obligations for South Korea to respect fundamental labor rights – not to weaken them in any way – as well as to effectively enforce existing labor laws, in order to help maintain a level playing field for American workers to compete. The agreement contains groundbreaking labor elements that were first outlined on May 10, 2007, in a bipartisan, Congressional-Executive agreement to incorporate high labor standards into America’s trade agreements.


  • Under this agreement, the United States and South Korea commit to adopt and maintain, in our laws and in the ways we implement those laws, the five fundamental labor rights as stated in the 1998 International Labor Organization (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work – and to submit to formal legal proceedings if either side fails to meet that promise. These include rights regarding:

    • Freedom of association – the right to form and join a union;

    • Collective bargaining – the right for workers to negotiate better conditions together;

    • Elimination of all forms of compulsory or forced labor;

    • Effective abolition of child labor and a prohibition on the worst forms of child labor; and

    • Elimination of employment and occupation discrimination based on gender, race, or other factors.

  • South Korea has an advanced industrial relations system, with strong labor unions able to assert labor rights on behalf of workers. South Korea began enacting a series of reforms in December 2006 that have strengthened worker rights, from raising the minimum wage to reducing limits on the right to strike.

  • The agreement calls for the American and South Korean governments to work together to improve labor standards and to cooperate on matters including unemployment insurance, worker adjustment programs, occupational safety and health, and labor-management relations.

  • Both the United States and South Korea commit not to waive or otherwise fail to apply labor laws in ways that are inconsistent with fundamental labor rights. This will not only protect these rights, but will help to preserve a level playing field for American workers.

  • Both the United States and South Korea commit to effectively enforce labor laws related to fundamental labor rights, as well as all laws that govern acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. Workers and employers in both South Korea and the United States will be guaranteed access to tribunals – judicial, administrative, or other forms – where they can see their rights enforced. The governments of the United States and South Korea have to ensure that proceedings before those tribunals are fair, equitable, and transparent.

  • The South Korean government will be held to the same level of accountability for meeting labor commitments as it is for meeting other commitments in the agreement – from market access to intellectual property protection. Available remedies for failure to meet labor commitments will include trade sanctions and fines.

  • The agreement requires the United States and South Korea to establish procedures that allow members of the public to raise concerns directly with the governments if they believe labor obligations are being violated. If a member of the public believes that South Korea is not meeting its labor obligations, he or she may submit information to the United States that the Administration must review and consider.