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Following the identification of a potential issue by the Korean National Contact Point under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, we went to the Philippines to investigate allegations of human rights violations in that country by Korean multinational enterprises.

We have also been active in a lawsuit against the export of weapons to Burma, as well as in general efforts to work towards democratization of the Burmese government.

Human Rights Violations Committed by Overseas Korean Companies: The Korean Government Must Enact Relevant Laws and Regulations 2014.04.10 11:04 5191
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   On February 14, 2014, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) hosted a forum to discuss the issue of human rights violations committed by Korean companies in foreign countries. Numerous human rights organizations, including the Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL), Korean House for International Solidarity (KHIS), Center for Good Corporations (CGC), Korean Lawyers for Public Interest and Human Rights (KLPH), and Gong-gam Human Rights Law Foundation (Gong-gam) participated in this forum to publish and debate overall findings gleaned through a years worth of investigatory site visits to the Philippines, Burma, and Uzbekistan as well as through documentary research of domestic and overseas material, and to discuss how to go forward to address human rights violations being committed by Korean corporations in these countries.


    Session 1 started with a presentation of atty. Jong Chul KIMs (APIL) research on the general findings of human right violations committed by Korean corporations, followed by several case studies: a case from the Philippines presented by atty. Jean KIM (Gong-gam), a Burmese case presented by professor Sang Soo LEE (Seogang law school), and an Uzbekistan case presented by atty. Jong Chul KIM. Session 2 featured a presentation entitled How to effectively manage overseas Korean companies human rights violations given by atty. PillKyu HWANG (Gong-gam), followed by a discussion session with Mr. Yun Cheol LEE (Chairperson of the Institute for Industrial Policy Studies), atty. Hyeon Dong KIM (KLPH), Mr. Sang Hyeop PARK (Manager of Overseas Investment Department, KOTRA), and Mr. Hyeong Seok CHO (Manager of Human Rights Policy Department, NHRCK).


    Human right violations committed by Korean corporations working in foreign countries mainly fall into the following categories: (i) environmental right violations in the mining and oil development industry; (ii) violations on the right to life of local residents in the agricultural industry; (iii) violations on the right to work, to fair compensation, to a safe working environment, and to freedom of association in the textile industry; (iv) violations on the right to fair compensation in the shoe manufacturing industry; (v) violations on the right to fair compensation and to a safe working environment in the clothes manufacturing industry; and (vi) violations on the right to work and the right to a safe working environment in the electronics manufacturing industry.


   As for the reasons why Korean corporations commit human rights violations in foreign countries, the following were identified: (i) a lack of knowledge of local laws and regulations, of the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Corporations, and of international human right norms in general; (ii) a tendency to evade communications with local residents impacted by corporate actions, relying instead on the corporations MOU and lobbying efforts with central or local governments; (iii) the exporting of illegal labor practices commonly found in Korea to the corporations foreign business practice; (iv) a lack of facilities that treat contaminated material or maintains a safe working environment, (v) a lack of internal communication channels (e.g. an internal process for resolving workers grievances), (vi) unreasonable investment decisions made without requisite human rights and financial risk assessments as well as excessive lobbying expenses (read: bribes) paid to local governments, (vii) the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes against local workers from developing countries and against female workers, (viii) a (frequently) corrupt local judicial system compounded by the fact that it is difficult to utilize legal and/or non-legal grievance procedures available in Korea, and (ix) a lack of supervision from Korean consulates/embassies as well as KOTRA regarding the issue of business and human rights.


    At this point, the laws and regulations that may be utilized to bring forth a claim against human rights violations committed by Korean corporations in foreign countries are as follows: 1) Domestically, legal measures based on criminal and civil courts are available, as well as non-legal government-sponsored measures such as submitting grievances to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea or the National Contact Point (NCP) as per the OECD Guidelines. 2) Internationally, measures from human right mechanisms based on treaties and charters are available. However, practical relief under such domestic and international and procedures is difficult. For example, it is not easy to recruit victims, collect sufficient evidence and file the necessary documents when trying a case in Korean court. The Korean NCP has not been properly functioning for a long time now. All on all, using international human right mechanisms does not seem to be an effective venue to seek adequate remedies. As such, the following (immediately implementable) ways to prevent additional violations and provide relief has been identified:


(i) The World Laws Information Center, operated by the Ministry of Government Legislation, should provide guidance and research material regarding human rights related local laws and regulations of foreign countries in addition to labor and consumer protection laws;


(ii) The Korean NCP should prepare measures to proactively and practically implement its mandate (i.e. raising awareness of the OECD Guidelines and promoting its implementation);


(iii) KOTRA should provide detailed information about disadvantages corporations may experience should they commit human right violations and not comply with local laws and regulations in addition to investment related information. The agency should also provide specific information on corporate social responsibility; 


(iv) Sufficient deliberation and coordination among stakeholders should be required prior to the implementation of large-scale projects that involve large scale deportation or expropriation;


(v) The previous iteration of the Foreign Exchange Transactions Regulation stipulated that the chief of overseas diplomatic missions is responsible for determining whether a corporation engaging in foreign direct investment has made a negative impact on Koreas foreign relations by breaching local laws and regulations or committing improper business practices. The Minister of Strategy and Finance, however, deleted this provision at the end of last year when the human right violations committed by overseas Korean companies received press coverage. Policies to strengthen related regulations are urgently needed at this point.


(vi) Koreas Eximbank should recognize that the risk of being implicated with human rights violations is one of the most severe that a business manager can come across, and provide analytical reports on the human right risks of foreign countries to Korean corporations investing overseas, and incorporate this facet into its investment support scheme;


(vii) An investment guideline of public funds based on human rights principles should be prepared (e.g. amending the Pension Act), and an obligation to disclose whether a due diligence review of compulsory labor has been performed must be imposed. Furthermore, public enterprises should prepare management evaluations and disclosure policies that reflect human right considerations throughout all stages of operation (from investment through implementation), and public enterprises should be required to issue reports regarding sustainability;


(viii) Regulations that mandate disclosure should be set in place to prevent human right violations in disputed areas, especially regions where conflict minerals are produced. Customs law should also be reformed to stipulate the prohibition against importing or exporting goods related to human rights violations;


(ix) Overseas Resources Development Business Act and its enforcement ordinance should be revised to include provisions restraining indiscriminate resource development investment; and


(x) Overall, criminal and civil law should be reformed so that it may provide practical substantive and procedural relief to damages caused by human right violations.


   To effectively respond to human rights violations committed by Korean corporations operating abroad, the Korean government needs to establish a master plan on the issue of business and human rights and proactively lead efforts to modify applicable laws and regulations. Already, many countries have already established or are taking concrete steps to establish action plans regarding business and human rights (e.g. the United Kingdom). Most Korean corporations have been in operation in Korea before starting their overseas investment programs, and are exporting know-how from its expertise in violating human rights at the home front. As such, while measures to deal with Korean corporations operating in foreign countries should most certainly be a part of the governments action plan on business and human rights, it is important to note that such a plan should also deal with the implementation of human rights within the broader context of corporate practice within Korea as well. By treating the root cause, such an action plan would have the effect of preventing Korean corporations from committing human right violations in foreign countries and providing relief. The Korean government should not neglect the fact that Korean corporations are committing human rights violations abroad any longer.


Author: Atty. Pillkyu HWANG of Gong-gam