[OUTLOOK]Endangered generation of menThe main character of "Gashigogi," literally the "bonefish," a best-selling novel a few years ago, is representative of the fathers of our time. Readers have the opportunity to meditate on the greatness of paternal love with deep-felt emotion as they follow the story of a father who is willing to face death to nurse his son who has an incurable disease.
The reason this novel won so many hearts was because it portrayed the reality of the fathers of our time faithfully. Who are these men in their 40s and 50s? They are the ones who sacrificed their youth to serve our society and achieved the high-speed growth of our economy. Possessing a strong sense of self-sacrifice and responsibility, they were determined to make the suffering end with their generation and worked devotedly to ensure that their children would live in better conditions.
When they were young, the saemaeul, or "new village" movement had just started, playing a crucial role in boosting their desire to work. Living as youths in a time when the government created an environment where self-responsibility was emphasized and people were encouraged to work in competition with one another, these fathers, now in their 40s and 50s, gave up their holidays and frequently worked overnight. Today, our long working hours are largely due to such thinking and labor practices of that time.
Many of these fathers are in a humble, almost pitiful state these days. With the myth of a lifelong guaranteed job destroyed by the financial crisis of 1997, they have fallen into "honorable retirement." The seriousness of the situation is in the fact that such early retirement is not because of the inattention or indifference of individuals; it stems from a structural problem.
A look at the wage system shows part of the problem. Under our seniority-based wage system, an employee who has worked for more than 20 years at a company receives twice the pay of a new employee. In other words, a company could hire two new employees by firing one senior employee. Accordingly, companies would focus on long-term employees in restructuring plans. If there is a two-fold difference in the wages paid for the same work, naturally companies would prefer newer and younger employees armed with new skills and still overflowing with vigor.
Improving the system to increase the flexibility of the labor market remains an important task. Yet, the government persists in turning a deaf ear to the pleas of management to reform the labor system. The same goes for the bill for shortening the workweek. Fewer official hours on the job would essentially mean that we would need to decrease overtime because of the expense.
Our fathers, holding the belief that they need to earn every penny that they can, would most certainly choose overtime work over leisure when the premium wage rate is that high. The premium wage rate must be lowered if there is to be a decrease in actual working hours. In addition, high premium wages mean high labor costs, which impede competitiveness.
The system for deciding the length of an employee's vacation according to how many years he or she has worked should also be reconsidered. There is no reason that an employee should get longer holidays merely for having worked longer.
If we do not reform the working hours system this time, we might never have the opportunity again. The problem lies in the fact that the laws of the labor standard act are laws meant to provide the minimum standard labor conditions. Raising the legal minimum standard too high might not pose much of a problem to the better-off businesses but it would mean the closing of less fortunate companies.
Despite the rising number of two-income families, under the influence of Confucianism, we still have more families relying completely on the father for their livelihood. Nearly 52 percent of women over 15 years of age participate in economic activities, about 20 percent less than the participation in other industrialized countries, inclu-ding the United States and Great Britain.
Neglecting to reform the labor system will compromise our fathers' job security and lead to insecurity in society. Grand slogans, such as "creating more jobs" and "improving living conditions," are all very nice but right now the government needs to focus on solving the inflexibility of the labor market and ensuring the job security of workers in their 40s and 50s.
The writer is the president of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
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