[Viewpoint]The forgotten issue

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[Viewpoint]The forgotten issue

It’s already July, and there is something that has passed unnoticed, buried beneath the shouting at candlelight vigils and overshadowed by economic stagnation.

A year has passed since the implementation of the irregular worker protection law, and the coverage of the law has been expanded to small- to midsized companies with 100 to 300 employees since July 1.

Many people say there are more urgent matters than the irregular worker problem. However, the irregular worker issue is the very essence of all economic and social problems. It is the frontline where labor and management confront each other, and where conflicts such as social polarization, generational confrontation and collision between the ideal and reality take place.

Moreover, it is a problem on which depend the fates of individuals who live alongside us. For the people concerned, it is an even more desperate and immediate a problem than the safety of U.S. beef or disappointment in the administration of President Lee Myung-bak. However, the irregular worker issue is not included among the issues raised at candlelight vigils, such as the privatization of public companies or the resolve to defend public broadcasting stations from government intervention.

Not only the government and the political circle, but also the labor groups that participate in candlelight vigils are failing to show sufficient interest in the temporary worker problem. The irregular worker problem is thus being forgotten in the heat of midsummer.

Just a year ago, when the irregular worker protection law was introduced, people expected the law to actually protect those with irregular jobs. It was a good thing that discrimination against non-regular positions and employment instability would be eliminated. There were debates on the merits and demerits of the law, but labor and management finally reached an agreement to treat irregular workers better. What a significant change it was. People thought good intentions would lead to good results. They also thought there was still some goodwill left in this land and that the good intentions would be reflected in the lives of those who hold irregular jobs.

However, this was not the case. Good intentions did not necessarily lead to good results. The law brought about a worse situation than before. The clause that made it mandatory to switch those who worked over two years in an irregular position to a regular position has become an axe that cuts people’s employment in less than two years.

Companies concerned with possible increases in labor costs quit hiring irregular workers, and fired the ones they did hire before they worked for two years. They gave the jobs done by irregular workers to subcontractors or dispatched workers.

According to data from the Korea National Statistical Office in March, the number of irregular workers has fallen by 135,000 in the past year. However, not all of them have switched to regular jobs.

The number of irregular workers with comparatively good working conditions has decreased by 321,000, while those with poor working conditions ?? such as hourly pay and being dispatched, subcontracted or employed on a daily basis ?? have increased by 155,000. This indicates that overall jobs have decreased while employment conditions have worsened.

You could argue that it is businesses that should lead the change of non-regular positions to regular ones and improve working conditions. However, businesses would point out that there was a reason for hiring irregular workers in the first place. They were employed to reduce labor cost and survive fierce competition in the market. If these factors did not exist, of course they would want to hire skilled regular workers and treat them well.

How nice it would be if businesses generously switched all non-regular positions to permanent ones. But who would take responsibility if the companies went bankrupt? What about people who say they do not mind having non-regular jobs if they can continue to work. Admittedly, there must be some malicious business owners who exploit irregular workers, but most companies probably hire them because they have no other choice.

Starting this month, small to midsized companies facing even harder economic conditions have to follow the irregular worker protection law. It is highly likely that more irregular positions will disappear and employment conditions will get worse.

Damage caused by good intentions will become deeper and spread more widely. If the law is not fixed quickly, the disastrous results from it will soon confront us.

Bugs that spread diseases should be killed. However, an entire house should not be set on fire to catch a bug.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jong-soo
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