Yoo Ki-soo, General Secretary of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), was arrested on 26 May by the South Korean government, after a protest calling on the government to take responsibility for the Sewol Ferry Disaster.
The ferry was carrying 476 people — mostly South Korean schoolchildren. It sank on 16 April off the southern coast of the country.
The death toll has reached 288, with 16 people still unaccounted for. No bodies have been found since 21 May.
Many people believe the disaster to be the result of deregulation and poor government oversight of industrial health and safety.
The demonstration at which Yoo Ki-soo was arrested followed a rally concerning workers’ rights violations at Samsung.
In recent years there have been at least three deaths at Samsung Electronics Service. In October 2013, Yim Hyeon-woo died of a brain haemorrhage caused by overwork.
A month later, Choi Jong-beom committed suicide, in protest against the company's harsh labour discipline and attempts to crush a unionisation drive.
The latest suicide was that of Yeom Ho-seok on 16 May, a 34-year-old trade union representative who faced months of management threats and harassment for his union activities.
On 18 May, around 400 police raided the morgue at Seoul Medical Centre and seized his body after a tense stand-off with 100 hundred trade unionists, at which police arrested 24 people.
The state has apparently cremated Yeom Ho-seok’s body against his dying wishes, which were for his body to “remain in state until his local wins [recognition].”
Meanwhile, trade union organisations including the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) have called for Yoo Ki-soo’s release, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has hinted that a team may be sent to South Korea to investigate the labour rights situation.
The online campaigning website LabourStart is running an appeal for trade unionists in South Korea.