Imprisoned trade union leader Han Sang-gyun (President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) has been honoured with the George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.
“We applaud the AFL-CIO in honouring President Han, whose activism is legendary and his unshakeable commitment to genuine democracy and trade union rights is unparalleled,” said BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson. “This defining spirit was critical in the KCTU taking a leading role in the broad movement that brought down President Park. On behalf of the BWI, we reiterate our demand to South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-In to immediately release Han and all other imprisoned trade unionists.”
Han’s activism started in high school when he joined thousands of students, workers, and citizens of Kwangju protesting the military coup led by Chun Doo Hwan in May 1980. His involvement in the Kwangju Uprising would be one of the defining moments in shaping his path to a long-term militant trade union activist. In the mid-1980s he helped organise a union in the Ssangyong auto manufacturing plant where he worked. In 2008 he was elected President and the following year he led a 1700-strong occupation of that plant against layoffs and severance concessions that lasted 77 tense days and resulted in him serving three-year prison time.
After his release in November 2012 Han staged a 171-day sit-in at the top of a 164-foot 124,000-volt electric transmission, demanding reinstatement for his fellow workers. After a further three years of campaigning, Ssangyong agreed to hire back hundreds of workers, drop lawsuits against the union and created a fund to help laid-off workers and their families.
In the first ever direct vote election, the more than 700,000 members of the KCTU voted Han as its President. Han had run on a promise to aggressively mobilize through a general strike against the then-President Park Geun Hye’s anti trade union policies and efforts to liberalize labour laws. Han and the KCTU responded to the assault on worker and trade union rights under President Park with enormous peaceful demonstrations and as a result he and other trade union leaders were imprisoned.
Since December 2016 President Han has been serving a politically-motivated three-year prison sentence for defending trade union rights. The sentence has been condemned as a violation of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining by multiple United Nations bodies, human rights organisations like Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights, and trade union organisations the world over, including the BWI.
In April 2017 letter, Han thanked his many supporters across the world, and added these touching words: “Despite the ongoing defeats I have not fallen to my knees because I know it is only natural that truth will win over lies and justice will trump injustice.”
The George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award was created in 1980 by the AFL-CIO (the US national trade union centre) and recognizes outstanding examples of the international struggle for human rights through trade unions. In 2014 the BWI received the same award, in recognition for its Global Sports Campaign for Decent Work.