중앙데일리

Why do irregular workers need protection?

Unequal treatment in the workplace exploits them and erodes social cohesion.

June 26,2007
A rally of irregular workers in the public sector in Seoul recently. The workers were seeking equal treatment. [NEWSIS]
With a new law about to kick in, Korean society is paying more attention to its irregular workers. Companies are criticized for over-hiring irregular workers, causing insecurity in the regular workforce.
Irregular workers are also discriminated against compared to their regular counterparts in terms of wages and working conditions. Some say reducing the number of irregular employees and raising the number of regular employees could hurt business or adversely affect the economy.
On July 1, the irregular workers protection law takes effect. Before that, the retail industry sometimes tried to turn irregular workers into regular workers.
So what are irregular workers and what are the problems?
Some people work at their company until they reach retirement age. These employees are called regular workers. In principle, they can continue to work there unless something serious happens.
Unlike regular workers, irregular workers have a contract that is valid for only a certain period of time. If the company does not need the employee and does not renew the contract when it expires, the employee can no longer work there.
Not all irregular workers are paid less than regular employees. If a software firm, for example, wants to develop game software by employing a talented programmer for one year, the company will have to pay a large salary. However, that case is an exception. In most cases, firms hire irregular workers to cut costs by reducing wages.
Regular workers, by contrast, receive wages and welfare benefits. A pivotal difference is that it is difficult to let regular workers go when the economy slows and a firm needs to downsize. It is expensive and difficult for companies to provide janitors or guards with the same wages and benefits that regular workers receive.
Because of that, irregular workers receive lower wages and less in benefits, such as the number of paid holidays or bonuses. Their employment status is also unstable. Statistics confirm it. During the first three months of this year, the average monthly income that regular workers earned was 2 million won ($2,150), while irregular workers were paid just 64 percent of that amount, or 1.3 million won. When considering retirement benefits and incentives, the gap is even larger.
The number of irregular workers increased sharply after the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998. Companies that went through painful downsizing during the financial crisis began employing irregular workers to reduce expenses and make personnel management more flexible.
While hiring irregular employees may help reduce costs, it can create problems for society as a whole. Irregular employees often suffer job insecurity, while wage differences may create a feeling of disparity. If the polarization keeps growing, there could be problems in social cohesion. Consumer demand can decrease because irregular workers do not have purchasing power. Low consumer demand is not good for business.
To solve these problems, the government took initiative ― the result is the irregular workers protection law, which will be implemented beginning next month.
Under the new law, if irregular workers stay in a company for two years or more, they can continue to work at the company. If irregular and regular workers do identical work and the requirements of their work are the same, irregular workers can’t be discriminated against in terms of wages and benefits. Thus, if an irregular employee signs a contract with a company in July of this year and continues to work there till July 2009, the company is obliged to upgrade the status of the employee. If the irregular employee does identical work to a regular employee, an employer may no longer offer a lower wage and shorter vacation.
There was widespread controversy until the law barely passed the National Assembly at the end of last year. Business organizations that represent companies were unhappy, saying the law put too heavy a burden on businesses. Labor organizations said the law does not sufficiently reduce the number of irregular workers. In addition, some said the law devised to protect nonregular workers is making the employment status of nonregular employees even more unstable. For example, companies may let go of nonregulars before two years to avoid the provision that those workers should be allowed to continue if they work there for more than two years. Then the number of jobs will shrink even more. These concerns are already becoming real, at least partially. Some retailers are trying to fire cashiers and using dispatched workers instead.
But even if nonregular workers are turned into regular workers, the problems continue. Though they become regular workers, they are still classified into special positions that are subject to lower wages and excluded from promotion. Companies say they would let nonregular workers continue to work but it is not reasonable to treat them equally to regular employees. Companies and labor organizations differ on how to deal with irregular employees, and there are complicated issues involved, such as economic efficiency and social costs. We all need to think about ways to reduce social conflict and to solve this dilemma. jbiz91@joongang.co.kr

What are nonregular workers?
Contract-based, part-time and dispatched workers are nonregular employees ― they are the ones covered by the new law. Contract-based workers usually have a contract that is valid for less than a year. Part-time workers work fewer than 36 hours. Dispatched workers are hired by a company but dispatched to a different workplace. They do not belong to the company where they work; their employer is the company that dispatched them. Caddies, tutors and ready-mixed-concrete truck drivers are classified as nonregular workers. According to the National Statistical Office, there are 5.8 million nonregular workers, and their number has been rising every year. Regular workers have fulltime positions and are directly employed by the companies they work for.


By Lee Hyun-sang JoongAng Ilbo



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