[VIEWPOINT]Caution on changing workweek

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[VIEWPOINT]Caution on changing workweek

The Korean Tripartite Commission's negotiations on a shorter workweek have collapsed. The negotiations started after labor insisted on job-sharing, trimming hours on the job and pay to create more jobs, during the mass unemployment in the middle of the economic crisis in 1998. The business world also agreed to minimize layoffs by cutting hours worked and reducing pay.

However, after these agreements were reached and the employment situation eased, the two umbrella labor unions annulled the negotiations. They changed their strategy to so-called improvement of quality of life, which entails cutting hours worked but not pay. After all, the aims at the beginning of the talks, which labor, management and the government had agreed on, had disappeared and only the strategy for raising pay remained.

The five-day workweek, which is premature for our economic stage, should be adopted in such a way as to lessen the shock on industrial competitiveness and the economy. I have pointed out many times that it is not desirable to introduce a system that does not meet international standards. But if it is introduced, how should it be done to avoid hurting competitiveness?

First, total holidays should not exceed the number of holidays in Japan (129-139). It is difficult for South Korea, whose national income per capita is just $8,900, to enjoy the same number of holidays as Japan. Japan's national income per capita is $37,000. Korea now has 91-101 holidays.

According to the Tripartite Commission's draft, we could have a total of 131-146 paid holidays a year. This is much more than in Japan and France, which has the most holidays (145) in the world. We would also have more holidays than rival countries. Developed countries have an average of 126.8 holidays per year. In Korea, if the leave for menstruation remains without pay, female workers would have 148-158 days off. And if we consider the special leave for funerals, weddings and so on, which is not included in the holiday calculation, the number of holidays increases to 146-156 for male employees and 158-168 for females.

Second, a "no-work-no-pay" principle should be honored. Making up for menstruation leave and monthly and annual holidays with pay should be banned. And also we should change the paid leave during the week, which is the wrong practice, to leave without pay. And we should state clearly in the revision of the law that the number of working hours given up by management is four hours per week, which would form the basis of the five-day workweek system. This should help avoid confusion over the interpretation of the law in the future.

Third, improvements in the system should meet international standards. The overprotective regulations for labor under the six-day workweek system should be changed to adhere to international standards when we introduce the five-day workweek. The bonus rate for overtime pay should be set at 25 percent, which is the standard of the Interna-tional Labor Organization, and the flexible time system for temporary workers should be enlarged to six months or one year. It is also desirable to abolish the menstruation leave, according to labor international standards. The government had promised to do away with menstruation leaves when they introduced the maternity protection law last year.

The point the business world stresses is that we need to minimize the damage from the changes. Reform should be in accordance with the conditions required for our economy and companies to get over the enormous additional burden from cutting the number of work hours.

The Korean Tripartite Com-mission's draft and the government's arbitration proposal, which contains only the demands from labor, could not be an appropriate alternative for reasonable negotiations. The introduction of the five-day workweek, which will have an enormous impact, should be supported by a national consensus and an agreement among labor, management and the government, although it will take much time. We have to consider international standards and reasonable pain-sharing principles under the reality rather than political interest or nominal justice.

We have to restart negotiations for the improvement of the labor system from the beginning. We can revive the spirit of the agreement made between labor and management in Oct. 2000. I hope that we will have ample discussions on how to accomplish harmony and balance between the quality of workers' lives and the competitiveness of companies, according to international standards and customs. This comes from pure economic logic.


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The writer is the vice chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries.

by Sohn Byung-doo

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