Modernizing workforce tops minister’s agenda

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Modernizing workforce tops minister’s agenda


Three bills comprised of 34 clauses designed to modernize labor relations and workers’ status are currently being finalized by the Ministry of Labor. One bill is set to enhance the protection of an increasing number of temporary contract workers ― a replacement for a previous bill that has been pending at the National Assembly for the past year. Other areas covered include the consolidation of wage negotiations when multiple unions are involved, and who should pay the salaries of full-time union officials ― in Korea, currently, companies are responsible for this.
The JoongAng Ilbo recently interviewed Labor Minister Kim Dae-hwan, 56, on these issues. Mr. Kim said union leaders have distanced themselves from their members and have become too political, which has led to unhealthy labor activity. He also said employers should deal with labor issues themselves and not rely on the government.

Q. The ministry promised to proceed with all 34 clauses, but to date has finished only 24 of them.
A. We have been discussing all the clauses with the political parties and the government since September and agreed to handle 24 of them first. The remaining 10 will be talked about in the mid- to long term, or are still under discussion.

Are you positive about finishing them by next February?
Once the government submits the bills, the ball will be in the National Assembly’s court. The government and political parties agreed that these tasks will be completed by February at the latest.

Those affected by the bills do not seem to be narrowing their differences of opinion.
The labor unions and the employers do not mention the advantages of the bills, only their disadvantages. The Tripartite Commission has had unofficial discussions, but could not agree on some of the issues. We are open to opinions, but we cannot let the unions and employers bicker over the issues forever. The government needs to submit its proposals in December to finalize the bills by February.

The business community is worried that allowing multiple unions could cause more strikes.
Strikes are a measure to apply pressure on management when employers and unions do not come to an agreement. In that sense, strikes are normal. The problem is that many of these are illegal, but that number is down 70 percent this year. When law and order is fully established, there won’t be any problems.

Contract workers seem to be increasing.
After the 1997-1998 financial crisis, labor unions strengthened the status quo to ensure their employment. On the other hand, employers preferred contract workers because it was easier to retrench. The rigidity of the unions led to the hiring of more contract workers. Unions need to be more considerate to contract workers.

Do you expect the bill to protect contract workers to be passed at the Assembly this year?
I asked the ruling party to take full responsibility to pass the bill as there will be more problems if its introduction is delayed. Besides, the labor unions believe the bill must be passed this time so we expect the Assembly to pass it.

To prevent fraud by labor unions, do you have plans to revive the right to inspect unions’ accounts?
I hope that union leaders voluntarily put in place a system to make their accounts more transparent. If they do not make such an effort or do so only in formality, the government will need to oversee their accounts. The two umbrella trade unions have promised to create auditing systems, and so we are taking a wait and see approach.

Is the government partly responsible for the recent fraud by labor unions?
The government should thoroughly inspect its subsidies and other assistance given, which is its responsibility. Employment fraud seems to be a series of individual scams, but labor unions of large corporations and the umbrella trade unions have become too political, which has led to an increase in their expenditure and resulted in some fraud.

Some say employers are also responsible.
Employers lack true entrepreneurial spirit. Whenever I meet businessmen, I ask them not to rely on the government in labor issues. Mobilizing the police as occurred in the past to escape managerial responsibility is no longer possible.

by Cheong Chul-gun
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