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Junior doctors ask ILO to intervene in Seoul's back-to-work order

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : March 14, 2024 - 14:54

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Medical workers walk at a university hospital in Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap) Medical workers walk at a university hospital in Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap)

A group of medical interns and residents who left hospitals in protest of the government’s planned medical school admissions hike has demanded the International Labor Organization, a labor rights watchdog under the United Nations, intervene in Seoul's back-to-work order, it said on Thursday.

“The government is threatening junior doctors to return to work by mentioning suspension of their licenses, a forced labor prohibited by the ILO. Accordingly, we have asked the ILO to intervene,” Park Dan, head of the Korea Interns and Residents Association, said in a press release.

Since last week, the government has been sending notices to doctors who defied the administrative order to return to work, threatening to suspend their medical licenses. Medical circles here said such an order violates the ILO's Convention No. 29, also known as the Forced Labor Convention, which is designed to ban any entity from using forced or compulsory labor.

Protesting doctors say the government has been restricting their free will to start or quit their jobs, and it has forced doctors to stay at work without convincing evidence proving that the country is facing a medical crisis.

“The government must stop threatening junior doctors and forcing them to start working through government authority,” Park added.

The government instantly denied the claim, quoting an clause of the ILO rule that doctors' resignation en masse could result in “endangering the existence or the well-being of the whole or part of the population.”

The Ministry of Employment and Labor said Thursday that “Article 2(2) of Convention 29 describes a few situations which constitute exceptions to the ‘forced labor’ definition under certain conditions. The disruption of health care services is a serious threat to the survival and well-being of the people. Therefore, the government's back-to-work order is a legitimate measure, which also falls within the exclusion from the application of forced labor.”

The government claimed that forcing doctors to work is acceptable as the population would be on the verge of a medical crisis otherwise, even with a series of stopgap measures.

"If the ILO takes steps to intervene in the Korean government’s response to a strike by junior doctors, Seoul will actively present specific facts and circumstances of the health care situation here to the UN watchdog to provide a better explanation of why its back-to-work order was necessary," it added.

At the same time, the government downplayed the significance of the ILO’s intervention by claiming it would be an opinion made on a customary basis.

“The ILO’s intervention measure is not included in its official supervisory mechanism conducted by supervisory bodies, it would rather mean delivering its opinion.”

“When a labor union asks the ILO to intervene, the ILO requests an opinion from the government, and then the ILO delivers the government’s opinion to the union without any follow-up measures, and then concludes,” the Labor Ministry added.

Referring to the 2022 case of the ILO's letter to the Korean government regarding Seoul’s back-to-work orders issued to striking truckers, the ministry said there were no suggestions from the ILO afterward.