[VIEWPOINT]The twists in workweek talksIntroduction of the five-day workweek is what people want and it is inevitable despite the opposition from business. During the last two years of discussions on this issue, business has objected to the idea, saying that it is premature, but played along with the public by pretending to discuss it.
Firms advocated holiday/-vacation reductions, nonpayment of salaries and the introduction of the elastic labor system as a strategy to elude the workweek change.
Also, companies have led the labor force to believe that the wage preservation issue for the holiday/vacation system change would be accepted, but on the final day of the Korean Tripartite Commission Conference on June 22, they changed their direction on the main issues and rejected a request to include a specific clause concerning wage preservation. This kind of attitude has been encouraged by the local election results and some politicians' remarks in favor of business.
The issue of the five-day workweek is now in the hands of the government, but it is causing concern because of the high possibility of legislation after negotiations. If such is the case, a labor struggle is inevitable.
The government should opt for the fundamental objective of work-day reduction for workers' well being and improvement in the quality of life. In order to achieve this goal, first, compensation should not be reduced. The grim reality is that many workers are being paid low wages, thus making overtime necessary.
Reduction of wages from less work will lead to a deterioration in the quality of life, and since the wage preservation scheme will only protect full-time workers, part-time workers will be the ones to bear the greatest blow. Thus, it is necessary to propose a protection scheme for part-time workers, also.
Second, if the legislation of reduction of work hours is passed, it should be applied in the shortest possible time to all areas of business. The legislation is more highly needed in small firms where overtime work is more common.
Third, the reduction should not lead to the deterioration of the quality of labor. If work elasticity is approved in one-year units, as the Korean Tripartite Com-mission has proposed for public benefit, it will be used extensively by employers for the purpose of reducing wages, and the workers will have to suffer from irregular and long work hours on top of lower wages. Of course, fewer work hours may increase labor cost per unit, which is another worry among businesses.
The labor cost increase due to the change will differ from industry to industry, but will average around 10 percent, which is an acceptable rate for a yearly wage increase.
If the hours are decreased, the effort to boost productivity will naturally follow, and the workers will actively participate in this endeavor. Even if a firm's position is put in jeopardy due to the reduction in work hours, future wage agreements will show the adjustment, which means that the labor market has its own mechanism to absorb the impact. Also, we have already seen in 1989 that reducing work hours results in no difficulties.
Increased leisure time will lead to more investment opportunities and increased domestic demand in the service industry, resulting in more dynamic industrial activity due to improved worker performance. Labor and industry agree that government support is advisable for smaller companies.
Business must be sure absolute opposition is actually beneficial. By accepting the reduction of work hours, cooperation of workers and support of the government may be easily achieved.
The five-day workweek is becoming a general trend, and it will be introduced through labor-management conferences even without legalization, so opposition will be limited.
The government or the political parties have an obligation to support the five-day workweek to advance the nation according to the wishes of its citizens, and should not approach this issue politically.
This is a response to the "Precondition of five-day work week" published last Friday by Sohn Byung-doo, vice chairman of the Federation of Korean Industries.
The writer is secretary general of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.
by Kim Sung-tae