The Dynamic Evolution of Urban Industrial Mission in Korea

By Michelson, Grant | Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Dynamic Evolution of Urban Industrial Mission in Korea


Michelson, Grant, Indian Journal of Industrial Relations


Challenges before Industrial Relations

In recent years, the field of industrial relations has experienced numerous challenges including a greater recognition of global factors influencing national systems of work regulation, more sophisticated employment practices by managements, new work arrangements, and the decline in trade union influence across different countries. Such developments have undoubtedly been a major reason for the shift in attention by some scholars towards evaluating the state and future of industrial relations (e.g. Ackers 2002, Piore & Safford 2006). There has also been increased recognition of, and interest in, the new and non-traditional actors who are playing a more active role in the employment relationship. It is with such new and nontraditional actors that this article seeks to engage.

The new and non-traditional actors are beginning to occupy the labour market spaces either newly created by various macro-level changes (e.g. Baldacchino 2001) or made vacant by some of the traditional industrial relations actors (e.g. Michelson 2006). There is a small body of literature which seeks to document the emergence of these new employment actors, particularly in the Anglo-American world. For example, there has been research on the Citizens' Advice Bureaux in the U.K. (Abbott 1998, 2004), end-users of services in Canada (Bellemare 2000), community groups and employment agencies in the U.S. (Osterman et al. 2001), the role of multinationals in Finland (Peltonen 2006), and a range of new and hitherto under-researched actors in Australia (Michelson et al 2008). The British Journal of Industrial Relations published a special issue on new actors in industrial relations (vol. 44, no. 4, 2006) with four of the six papers in the special issue devoted to developments from the U.S. However, our understanding of the new and non-traditional industrial relations actors in other contexts such as Asia is not well developed.

This article aims to explore non-traditional actors in South Korea (hereafter 'Korea') through an examination of urban industrial mission (UIM). While the progressive wings of a number of different Christian churches in Korea developed such missions to assist and support workers from the early 1960s, this article focuses on one of the largest and best known examples--Yong Dong Po urban industrial mission (YDP-UIM) based in Seoul. The study examines YDP-UIM from this early period to the early 2000s to understand better the role and activities of this church-based actor. Specifically, the research seeks to answer the question: to what extent has YDP-UIM been a significant non-traditional actor in Korean employment relations?

The article shows how YDP-UIM evolved over two different chronological periods: the early 1960s to 1987, and 1987 to the early 2000s. In the former period, the political and economic climate in Korea helped to shape a role for YDP-UIM as trade unions' ability to represent workers was severely restricted. However, with the transition to democracy from 1987, the relative importance of YDP-UIM in Korean industrial relations began to decline as trade union rights and freedoms were strengthened under more liberal industrial laws. Consequently, and assisted by some other factors, YDP-UIM began to shift its orientation including expanding its focus to supporting workers in other countries in Asia. Rather than suggesting consistency in actor influence over time as Dunlop's three-actor model appears to assume, the article concludes that YDPUIM was a more (and less) significant actor in different time periods. The study therefore presents a more dynamic account of this particular non-traditional employment actor in the Korean context.

Actors' Influence in Industrial Relations

Many theories of industrial relations define actors in terms of their behaviours and their power and influence via-a-vis other actors. Dunlop's (1958) systems theory, which has been highly influential in shaping the domain of inquiry, argued that there are three well-defined categories of actors: employers (and their representatives), workers (and their representatives) and a range of state-based agencies. …

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