[Viewpoint]And then there were fourThe tripartite committee of the government, employers and labor unions celebrates the 10th anniversary of its foundation this year. The committee was launched on Jan. 15, 1998 with the goal of overcoming the foreign currency crisis. It reached a grand agreement to change basic labor rights, such as protection from layoffs.
While it has not produced much in the way of visible outcomes since that time, it is significant that the committee has maintained a decade-long dialogue as the first social consultation apparatus in Korea, a nation that had been branded a hotbed of labor oppression by the International Labor Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But there have also been problems. Once the urgency of the financial crisis ended, the three parties had little motivation to reach agreements, and the government, employers and labor unions lapsed into passivity.
The unions often refused to come to the negotiating table, claiming that the National Assembly and the administrations were not sticking to the original agreement.
The employers have been passive in the course of negotiations because the issues discussed after the grand agreement of 1998 mainly dealt with basic labor rights.
At the same time, the government was uncomfortable sharing policy-making rights with the tripartite committee, ironically pursuing a government-led social dialogue.
The committee did well out of the gate, but has lacked endurance, marking the decade following its first month of action with a lack of progress.
The Lee Myung-bak administration has put forward a plan to turn the tripartite committee of the government, employers and labor unions into a quadripartite one, throwing civic groups into the mix.
In this new plan, the four groups will come together to reach agreements on pending labor issues such as the no-strike pledge, and the central tripartite committee will be reduced in scope and power. When the no-strike pledge is agreed on and accepted at the local level, the government will provide local financial grants, subsidies and tax benefits to non-striking workplaces and regions.
The benefit of a quadripartite committee is the emphasis on straightforward, grassroots-level dialogue, increasing the possibility of reaching agreements. The city of Bucheon is already managing effective local-level tripartite talks. Since organized workers currently make up a mere 10 percent of the committee, the addition of civic groups will enhance the balance of the group.
However, the plan poses some concerns. Firstly, the policy of giving benefits to strike-free areas can bring adverse side effects. The government and employers could be forced to make excessive concessions to unions to avoid strikes, because the unions would gain an edge in talks by exploiting strikes as a negotiating card.
Instead of starting off with the goal of preventing strikes completely, the quadripartite dialogue should emphasize issues of coexistence such as job creation and joint vocational training at the local level.
It would not be appropriate for the quadripartite committee to focus only on local-level government, employers and labor unions and minimize the central tripartite committee.
As we have seen in the irregular-employee protection act, employers and unions have conflicting interests when it comes to labor issues, and unilateral policy planning by the government could lead to high levels of discontent.
The best way to pursue labor-related bills is through a central dialogue apparatus. In the end, the central-level committee dealing with nationwide issues needs to collaborate closely with local-level committees on regional matters.
The new government is seeking to follow the example of Ireland, where local-level government-employer-union consultative bodies operate successfully in cooperation with a central organization.
Moreover, the central tripartite committee of the government, employers and labor unions should be headed by a political heavyweight, possibly a prime minister-level figure. Major politicians from the ruling and opposition parties should participate in the committee to make sure the National Assembly and the administration follow agreements. We should not repeat the folly of delaying discussions by not implementing the agreements.
Most importantly, a social dialogue of any form will not succeed if the government hopes to exploit the quadripartite committee as a tool to promote certain policies.
The quadripartite talks should not be led by the government but be participated in by unions, employers and civic groups voluntarily, and thus include the voices of all concerned parties.
*The writer is a professor of business administration at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Dong-one