[Viewpoint] Time for labor decision is now

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[Viewpoint] Time for labor decision is now

The pressing problems of the [tripartite] Labor, Management and Government Commission of Korea are the issues of allowing multiple labor unions and abolishing the system of paying wages to union members who work only for the union. That’s supposed to happen on Jan. 1, 2010, when multiple labor unions are to be permitted and payment of wages to union members who work only for the union are completely prohibited, according to related laws.

As the execution of these clauses has been suspended for the past 13 years, there was more than enough time to provide detailed directions for their implementation. However, even with only eight months left until implementation, the direction of the program has not been decided due to the failure to mediate the opinions of labor, management and the government.

For example, it is not yet determined whether multiple unions will each be given the right to negotiate with management separately, or form a unified channel to negotiate. Also, the issue of majority or a proportionate representation is still up in the air. As a result, companies and labor unions are not ready to establish any concrete strategy to prepare for the introduction of multiple labor unions.

The reality as such has increased the uncertainty of labor-management relations and ultimately become a factor that undermines the stability of labor-management relations.

Some even suggest that the implementation should be postponed another three to five years when economic difficulties are expected to ease. Advocates reason that a recession is not a good time to increase burdens on businesses. It’s also a tough time to find agreement between labor and management. This position is gaining strength as the interests of labor and management coincide behind the scenes.

In connection with the introduction of multiple unions, management naturally feels it’s an unnecessary complication, since the number of unions they would have to deal with would increase. The two major labor unions, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, are also not looking forward to a situation in which they will have to struggle against each other when multiple unions are permitted.

Labor unions also strongly oppose the execution of the clause that prohibits the payment of wages to union members who work only for the union. It’s possible, they say, that small labor unions will fail due to lack of financial support. In the end, both labor and management think it burdensome to implement everything that is in the law. Therefore, they maintain a passive attitude toward its implementation.

This is the reason why there are people who say there is no need to implement a bill both labor and management oppose. However, it’s not desirable to sustain the current situation of prohibiting the establishment of multiple labor unions and permitting unlimited payment of wages to the union members who work for the unions only.

The current law that prohibits the establishment of multiple trade unions violates the freedom of association recommended by the International Labor Organization. And it gives the impression to the international community that Korea oppresses labor. Seoul has continuously received orders for correction from the international organization.

Large labor unions that do not need financial support from management frequently misuse wages paid to union members. For example, some unions have maintained an excessive number of union members who have been paid by the company. In addition, it happens that a union member who no longer works for the company’s labor-management relations is paid by the company in case a company-paid union member is dispatched to an umbrella labor organization.

Moreover, if the implementation of the law, scheduled for 2010, is suspended again, the uncertainty will not be resolved and will only make labor and management relations more complicated.

The chances are even slim that after 13 years since its enactment, the law will actually be implemented next time around. Actually, it seems impossible for labor and management to reach an agreement on the two issues.

Management insists that the unions should use a unified negotiation channel if multiple unions are to be permitted, while labor demands labor-management negotiations be left at each workplace. Management wants to prohibit completely the payment of wages to union members who work full-time for the union. But labor wants to make it possible that such union members are paid part of their wages through labor-management negotiations.

If labor and management cannot reach an agreement, it is time for the government to decide.

The Labor, Management and the Government Commission established a special committee to discuss the impending agenda, but its members failed to reach an agreement. It is only known that a compromise agreement that reflects the position of the commission’s public sector members has been prepared.

It is desirable for the government and the National Assembly to enact a compromise agreement that is considered comparatively neutral, so that the bill could come into effect in 2010.

The government and the National Assembly are in a difficult situation. They will be criticized by labor or management, no matter what decision is made. It will also be agonizing for them that a reform in the midst of a financial crisis becomes a burden on both labor and management. But it is time to boldly make a decision. Execution of a bill that has been delayed for 13 years cannot be postponed any longer.

The government and the National Assembly should make a decision - now.

*The writer is a professor of business administration at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Dong-won
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