BWI condoles death of South Korean unionist, vows to continue his fight

The Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI) offers its deepest condolences to the family and comrades of  Yang, a South Korean trade unionist. Yang reportedly set himself on fire on 1 May, International Labour Day, to protest the government's harassment of trade unionists in the country. He later passed away from complications from his severe burns. 

BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson, who is in South Korea for a week of meetings with the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Union (KFCITU), the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), as well as with various allies and partners, expressed his condolences on Yang's death. "I was celebrating International Labour Day with our South Korean comrades when I heard the shocking news. We were all hoping for his quick recovery, but fate had other plans. It’s a sad day for the South Korean trade union movement," Yuson said. 

Yang, a district leader of a union, had been sought out by authorities. He had been unjustly accused of pressuring construction companies to hire union members and pay full-time union expenditures. In fact, he was scheduled for a warrant review hearing later in the day.

Before committing self-immolation, Yang, in a message he penned, voiced his deep frustration with the government. He said that although he had carried out his union duties lawfully and fairly, he had instead been charged by the government with obstruction of business and intimidation.

According to BWI, Yang was a victim of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration's aggressive union busting. Yang's death, the global union hoped, would not be in vain. 

"That Yang has resorted to extreme measures exposes the country's deteriorating labor rights situation, particularly among construction workers, and workers’ lack of voice and representation," Yuson said. 

"Together with the South Korean labour movement, we will continue Yang’s fight. We hope that the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as the international community will seriously look into the deteriorating labor situation in South Korea, amplify the workers’ voices and ensure the exercise of their rights to self organisation and collective bargaining without any fear of state reprisal,” Yuson asserted.

BWI reiterated its demand to the South Korean government to immediately and unconditionally release 15 trade unionists from the Korean Construction Workers Union (KCWU) who were unjustly detained for simply exercising their right to organise and bargain collectively.  The global union also demanded the government to stop summoning and legally harassing hundreds KCWU members to avoid a repeat of Yang’s tragic fate. 

"BWI calls on the South Korean government to stop attacking trade unionists and respect workers' right to free association, including the right to peaceful assembly and strike. Yang's death sends a clear message: enough is enough. Organising unions is not a crime," Yuson said.

Yang died at the age of 49. He was a bar bender. His wife and 15-year-old twins survive him.