Seoul Conference on Decent Work in Mega Sports Events


BWI Asia Pacific’s Regional Conference (20-22 June 2016), titled ‘Decent Work in Mega Sports Events’, has highlighted issues regarding health and safety, migrant workers’ rights and the difficulties of subcontracting that unions will be focusing on while organising workers engaged in construction projects connected to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. 


In his opening address to the conference President of BWI affiliate the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions (KFCITU) Baik Seok Ken described how mega sports events often have a hidden side, recalling how worker rights violations had characterised the construction of the 1998 Summer Olympics and 2002 World Cup infrastructure in South Korea, particularly regarding health and safety. 


This was echoed by Kyosti Suokas, Vice President of Finnish union Rakennusliitto, who noted that “The safety of workers is absolutely critical in Pyeongchang 2018, and with two fatalities already the International Olympic Committee must be more active in ensuring all Olympic-related construction projects commit to a zero accident policy”. 


Representatives from Japanese unions Zenkensoren, Sinrin Roren and Rinyaroso also shared their experience in engaging with the Tokyo Olympic Committee. “In our discussions with the Olympic Committee we have placed priority on ensuring zero accidents, better wages, protection for foreign workers and the use of certified sustainable timber”, said Yuji Mizuta, Vice Chairman of Sinrin Roren. “Both in Tokyo and Pyeongchang, the Olympic Organising Committees exercise significant political power and can play a key role in raising employment standards across all Olympic-related projects.” 


The BWI’s decade-long campaign around Mega Sports Events has sought to use international pressure to highlight these violations, rebuild trade union density and establish cross-border solidarity and organising strategies. Fruitful discussion covered issued such as how workers can effectively engage with mega-sporting bodies, how to promote jobs in construction to young workers and how to include sustainability objectives in the trade union agenda.  “International union solidarity has made a huge difference to wages and conditions for construction workers building World Cup and Olympic stadiums and their associated projects, and we are committed to ensuring workers in Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020 enjoy that same solidarity”, said Niklas Enstrom, International Director of the Swedish Electricians’ Union.  The conference was held in the Seoul offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, putting a spotlight on the ongoing trade union repression in South Korea. Discussion highlighted the critical role of the trade union movement in the development of democracy in South Korea, and how concerted attempts to undermine this power have resulted the roll back of civil and political rights. In this context, the recent sentencing of 15 tower crane operators, members of the KFCITU-affiliated Korean Construction Workers’ Union, of 8 months to 3 years for engaging in collective bargaining negotiations highlighted the continue trade union repression workers face in South Korea.  Along with many others, Bonsoom Tawajit, Chair of the Building and Wood Workers’ Industrial Council of Thailand, expressed his heartfelt solidarity with the tower crane operators. “In Thailand workers who organise are also subject to politically motivated attacks and arbitrary charges. We must work expose these fundamental rights violations and mobilise the international community to send a message that this is not acceptable,” said Tawajit.  Migrant workers were also a key issue discussed at the conference. “As well as securing jobs for local workers,” said KCWU Gangwon Regional Branch President Gwon Hyeok-Byeong, “We understand that mega sports events always involve migrant workers, and we must struggle to ensure the receive the same rights and wages as local workers”.  The conference brought together unions from countries of destination (Japan and South Korea) as well as unions from countries of origin (Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) to put strategies in place to protect the rights of migrant workers engaged in projects connected to Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020.  “Building workers must maintain solidarity,” said Santiago Nolla, Organiser at the Philippine National Union of Building and Construction Workers. “While multinationals rely on labour migration to keep wages down, everybody wins if both local and migrant workers are paid decent wages, and safe working systems and good conditions are implemented. It’s unions that will make the difference.”  The two-day conference was organized by BWI and hosted by the KFCITU with support from FES and Union to Union.