[FORUM]Casual workers need more helpOn May 12, a labor union held a special general meeting at a youth hostel in Daejon. After an intense discussion that went well into the night, the union voted 92 to 55 to accept a management proposal to end the longest labor strike in the history of the Korean labor movement. The union representing contract workers of Korea Telecom (now called KT) ended its 517-day strike.
The labor union won a guarantee of employment at subcontractors and some back pay, but the bottom line was that the labor union lost. The contract workers union at KT was established in October 2000 when 70 percent of the firm's 10,000 contract workers were about to be fired. Since the union representing full-time workers refused membership to contract workers, a new organization was set up to represent their interests. These contractors had received lower wages than their regular-employee counterparts even though they did exactly the same work. They connected phones and fixed out-of-order lines for years in hopes of being converted to a regular job some day. But as part of its restructuring, KT notified them that their contracts would not be renewed.
On December 13, 2000, the union asked management to revoke the layoff order and give its members the same treatment as regular workers. The long fight began. Coming to Seoul from the provinces and sleeping in college lecture rooms, union members have been at the center of several incidents that made the headlines. They entered the National Assembly, conducted a demonstration on a Han River bridge and occupied the Mokdong Telephone Office to publicize their struggle.
As the fight went on, more and more members gave up and the ranks of the union shrank. Twenty-three members were jailed and many others faced charges. Assessed fines totaled 120 million won ($96,000). What was once a powerful union boasting 1,300 members has dwindled to an organization of 211.
Although the long struggle of the KT labor union became a distant thing as time went on, it was a catalyst for kindling awareness of the problem of the irregular employees. After the Asian economic crisis, Korea's corporations increased the employment of low-cost, easy-to-fire workers, but social problems have been caused by the lack of any safeguards for them. The scale of the irregular work force differs depending on who is doing the estimating. Some say 27 percent of the total labor market is made up of these unprotected workers, while others put the figure as high as 55 percent of all workers. According to the National Statistical Office, about 52 percent of the labor force falls into this category, up from 40 percent in 1995. Women are especially vulnerable; 7 of 10 female employees are irregular employees and 8 of 10 married female workers.
The heart of the problem is that these workers are discriminated against and have no job security. Their average wage (840,000 won) is only half of what a regular worker earns; their working hours are longer and only 16 to 18 percent are insured in one of the four major insurance plans. Obviously, it is also difficult for such workers to unionize.
Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that this problem crops up again and again in labor disputes. The latest strike proposal by the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, the Korean Tourist Industry Worker's Federation and the Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union centers on the issue of these contract workers.
A special committee of the Korean Tripartite Commission of Labor, Management and Government was formed last October to look into the problems faced by these workers. It has come up with a preliminary agreement to widen their protections. Basic insurance coverage is to be expanded; legal protection will be strengthened; the scope and number of irregular workers will be clearly laid out. The agreement reflects the committee's lack of understanding of the conflict between labor and management and confrontations between regular workers' unions and irregular workers. But there is little time left to push this matter to the next stage. We need a solution now, and management as well as the unions should work together to come up with one to end this tragedy of second-class workers.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Han Cheon-soo