[OUTLOOK]As competitors, we need helpThere was a time when labor was placed under the category of communism. Though they were suppressed by working the longest hours in the world and had the highest rate of industrial disasters, workers had no say in what went on at the workplace.
At that time, the intelligence agency undertook the role of labor supervisor and the anti-communist law took the place of the labor standard law. Workers communicated their opinions through self-immolation and suicide instead of strikes. Afraid of the governmental authorities’ law and fist, no one dared to speak out, but the people’s hearts were with the workers. The people looked forward to seeing a day when workers could reclaim their original rights and duties to lead a life befitting human dignity.
The pro-democracy uprising in June 1987 was a turning point. During the strife, numerous sacrifices followed, and although they were insufficient, we became equipped with substantial legal protective methods.
Eighteen years later, how are the workers of today? Are they receiving support from society, the majority of the people, as they are the weak? Are the complaints of business managers, that they are more afraid of unions than authorities, nothing but stereo-typed excuses and cunning offensives by the conservatives to cover up their faults?
Things have indeed changed. Heads of labor unions have apparently accepted bribes in exchange for jobs and they are being investigated on charges of receiving bribes known as “rebates.” Labor leaders say the scandals were merely individual corruption cases, but then can they make the same excuse for the conglomerates they want to bring down at every opportunity?
Union leaders have learned in a few years what conglomerates have known for decades. I am more concerned about the union leaders’ responsibility than their irregularities.
The International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, the world’s famous consultant, releases its ranking of national competitiveness annually. This year, Korea ranked 29th among 60 countries surveyed.
Among Southeast Asia’s “four tigers,” Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan ranked second, third and 11th, respectively.
Our lagging well behind Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong reflects poorly on us, who proudly joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of advanced countries.
But what is truly disconcerting is that in the category of labor-management relations, we ranked last. How could the dynamics of our nation’s labor-management relations have changed over 18 years to rank 60th among 60 countries?
Of course, being the last is not the fault of labor alone. Is this, then, to say that Korea’s management is the worst among 60 countries? The Switzerland institution gave us the best rating in productivity, stability of foreign exchanges, and information and technology, all under the category of business competitiveness.
I have no special expertise to decide how much labor and management should each be responsible for our ranking dead last in labor-management relations, because it is, after all, involving both sides.
In any case, watching the political arena, which resembles something like a novice shaman’s exorcism, I feel it is a miracle that people aren’t going hungry. The source of the miracle is the foreign currency that a few export goods, such as semiconductors, automobiles and cell phones, bring in.
Labor-management relations should not hold back our business competitiveness so that the people don’t go hungry. This is the responsibility of unions’ leaders.
Standard and Poor’s, a ratings agency based in the United States, recently announced surprising news: It rated bonds issued by General Motors and Ford “below investment grade,” making them junk bonds. The world’s biggest businesses suddenly became companies “unfit for investment.”
Despite their past influence and pride, the legendary automakers in the United States, General Motors and Ford, have kneeled before the competitiveness of new carmakers. In addition to structural problems, including accumulation of debts and decreasing market share, excessive labor costs, which include a provision of lifelong medical care for retirees, played a part in the automakers’ declining competitiveness.
Japan’s three largest automakers, Toyota, Honda and Nissan, are attacking the market to fill the void.
The welfare of Korean workers should be further improved, but we are in a situation where we cannot make businesses bear the burden alone. Surviving globalization doesn’t allow companies much room for error.
Labor movements, and the unions in particular, should take the lead in the competitiveness game against overseas business competitors. This is not to say that we should return to the time when workers weren’t allowed to have a voice, however.
My advice is that in the brutal game of “eat or be eaten,” if we want to continue the miracle of eradicating hunger, we need to do something about our dismal ranking in labor-management relations.
The United States may survive without General Motors or Ford, but the Korean economy cannot do so without our few leading companies.
* The writer is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Joseph W. Chung