[VIEWPOINT]The temporary worker firing billHer name was Stephanie. She was a 41-year-old administrative clerk at the graduate school I lectured at last fall. When I asked how many jobs she had had prior to this one, she laughed and said it was her 38th. “What? Excluding the jobs you had when you were at school?” Then the number went down by nearly half: “Oh, then this is my 20th.” It was a number that was extremely shocking to me, but she proudly said that she planned a future together with her daughter in high school.
Stephanie was a contract worker. American society, a consumer’s heaven, is full of contract workers like her, and I could not get rid of the feeling that the extravagant buildings that fill up the city were based on exploited labor. So what? What can be done? It is the law of survival. The labor markets in highly developed countries have been shaken over the past 20 years. Chemical Bank in the United States reduced 15 departments into just one female worker overnight, and AT&T laid off 120,000 people at once, while Delta Airlines and Kodak got rid of 20,000 at a time. The stock price of the well-known distributor Sears rose 4 percent the day after it laid off 50,000 people, and the shares of Xerox rose 7 percent after it laid off 10,000 people. Even General Motors announced that it planned to reduce 30,000 people at the end of last year, after it was driven to the verge of bankruptcy due to the sudden advancement of Toyota Motors. In the world today, where a dismissal order from Wall Street sounds almost like divine providence, the dream of planning one’s own life has come to an end.
The situation in Korea is no better. As of the end of last year, temporary workers accounted for 37 percent of the total employed, with 5.4 million people. The ratio set a new record for a member country of the Organization for Economic Cooper-ation and Development. And the average monthly salary of contract workers, which stands at 1.15 million won ($1,184), is only 65 percent the average salary for permanent workers, which is 1.77 million won. Having to live knowing that any second they could lose their jobs has deprived these people of dignity. However, the dilemma is that the more unstable the life of a worker is, the more competitive his or her company becomes, which is also one of the greatest contributors to social polarization, and does not appear to be solvable under the Temporary Job Protection Bill. This is even more frustrating, because the tinderboxes of conflict that both businesses and laborers worry about still linger, and could cause a total meltdown in factories and corporations next year.
If the bill passes, truly ethical employers might accept contract workers as permanent workers in about two years, if there is no cause not to. The worthwhile feeling of having given someone back their dignity will be only temporary. The employer will have to look for a way to escape from the rising wages at home ― perhaps in China or India. No matter how hard one preaches the message that low wages are not the only thing that matters to businesses, corporate reality is a cold one.
If there is a company that can survive under the new bill, there is also a chance that it will be the target of a lawsuit filed by a temporary worker whose contract was not renewed ― the worker will claim he was fired illegally. In that case, there is only one temporary arrangement that can be made. That is to employ workers for just two years and than switch them with new contract workers right away. Such a labor system, which circulates workers among different workplaces, will probably be highlighted as an attractive escape route.
The labor community is the most wary of such unethical strategies by employers. It is confident that as long as the practice of terminating contracts without sufficient reason and circulating workers is not restricted, it will end up “mass-producing” temporary workers. Yet since there is no clear solution to the problem, the Democratic Labor Party and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions wanted to first of all block the meetings of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly, putting things to rest for a while. It was a relief that the deliberation of the bill was delayed for a month as labor and management talked past each other.
The Temporary Job Protection Bill, which aims to raise the standards of employment to those of the United Kingdom and Germany, will have the short-term effect of increasing the narrow range of permanent jobs, while lowering total employment. The employer has to pay the cost of promoting long-term contract workers, who make up around 20 percent of total contract workers, and then there is the additional cost for non-discriminatory employment and training. The result will be a deterioration of employment due to the lack of ability to pay employee costs.
If there is no alternative means of stopping such employment deterioration, the Temporary Worker Protection Bill will be better known as the Temporary Worker Firing Bill. Nobody wants to see people live an unstable life due to a temporary job, but there is also a desperate need not to damage the potential of businesses to create more jobs, which are disappearing as fast as the snow these days. Small and medium-sized companies, which employ around 70 percent of workers on a temporary contract basis, are indeed the ones that are most fragile to the hostile demands of Wall Street, which shouts one message: “Downsize!”
* The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Song Ho-keun