KFSWU-SGS Union Calls Out SGS to Uphold its Sustainability Principles in its Korean Operations


KFSWU-SGS Union Calls Out SGS to Uphold its Sustainability Principles in its Korean Operations

The SGS Union, a member union of UNI affiliate Korea Federation of Services Workers Unions (KFSWU), is calling out on the Switzerland-based Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS) for its Korean management’s failure to uphold the company’s principles of integrity and anti-discrimination at work. SGS is a global leader in testing, inspection, and consulting with over 140 years of history. 

The SGS Union, with a membership comprising nearly half the workforce of about 1,100 workers including non-regular workers, had received a complaint from a female union member that the Korean unit of SGS has not provided equal promotion opportunities.

Having first failed to obtain a satisfactory response from the management, the SGS Union proceeded to complain to the National Labor Relations Commission in 2023, seeking relief under the enhanced Gender Equality in Employment Act.

The Commission found that the female employee who had taken child-care leave was indeed denied equal promotion opportunities. A subsequent correctional order was issued to the company on 16 October 2023. The union urged the management to abide by the Commission’s findings, apologize to the victim, compensate the wages lost due to the missed promotional opportunities and adjust the company’s regulations.

Instead of choosing to settle the matter promptly and quietly, the company took a strange turn and launched a lawsuit with the Administrative Court to block the Commission’s order. The company’s blatantly discriminatory actions and legal action attracted media attention as the issue of discrimination against women at work has been trending as a contributing factor to Korea’s low birth rate.  

The SGS Union feared the news coverage would make the situation worse and wanted to engage directly with the company. However, they were thwarted by the management’s hardline attitude towards the union which also manifested during wage negotiations.

The union and company have already had ten rounds of mediated meetings over wage negotiations for 2023. However, the management refused to budge from an increase that was nearly half the rate the union originally proposed. The union’s calculations were based on SGS Korea’s healthy consecutive profit growth recorded from 2021 to 2023, and the need to address the impact of accelerating inflation on employees’ real wages. 

With few avenues left, the union voted for an industrial action that took place on 20-27 November. Despite the negative press and strike action, the local management has yet to come back with any viable proposal.

As of 27 November, the union members had resumed working on a 40-hour work week work-to-rule basis and will continue indefinitely until the company returns to the negotiation table.  

Brother Kim Jang-Shin, President of SGS Korea Labor Union, reflecting on the actions said, “It is a sad and absurd situation. The union had recommended the company take appropriate measures to remedy the issues of gender discrimination, which caused a worker to miss a promotion opportunity due to child-care leave over the years. Instead, the management went and wasted money to hire a law firm to escalate the conflict between the management and the union.”

On wage negotiations, he added, “Our colleagues in SGS Korea deserve the right to a reasonable wage level. For instance, one team supervisor with 10 years of experience in SGG Korea only gets a monthly salary of W2,7 million which is just barely above the current national minimum monthly wage level (2023). SGS Korea must do better to respect workers and offer wages and benefits in parallel with the competitors in the market at least.”

The UNI Global Union and its Asia & Pacific Regional Office dispatched a joint letter on 4 December, urging SGS to take immediate action to ensure full respect for worker rights at its Korean subsidiary and extended an offer to meet with the SGS Executives at their head office in Geneva to discuss appropriate steps forward.

Background information

UNI Global Union and all its affiliates are now marking the 16 Days of Activism for 2023. The theme for this year is Rising Together Against Gender-Based Violence. Gender-based violence takes place in many forms one of which is economic violence which includes promoting or demoting someone for sexist or discriminatory reasons. 

According to the OECD Gender Initiative, the gender wage gap for Korea in 2022 is 31.2 per cent, meaning women receive at least 30 per cent less pay than their male counterparts. This gap is the highest among all the OECD Member Countries.

SGS’s policy on “Anti-Discrimination and Dignity at Work”, which applies to the SGS Group and affiliated companies, specifically states that it does not tolerate any discriminatory practices based on, among others, “family status, gender, marital status, pregnancy, or any other status that is protected as a matter of local law”.