[Viewpoint] Let’s all work for Hyundai Motor!

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[Viewpoint] Let’s all work for Hyundai Motor!

In outsiders’ eyes, Hyundai Motor Co.’s labor union may come across as a group that is a little overfond of hard-core radical protests. But to the union’s members, it is generous, hardworking, detailed and caring, if a bit over-protective.

The union had management install electronic bidet toilets in 500 rest rooms in the companies’ manufacturing plants. The company explained that it took the action because many employees on the permanent payroll complained that they used bidets at home and desired the same comfort in the workplace.

The company also complied with the union’s demand to change the floors of a gymnasium and cultural center to expensive wooden ones. It extended its offer of free ice cream to employees during the summer by 25 days, bringing free-ice-cream days up to 40. Tuition subsidies for employees’ children are given for private schools and courses on the Internet.

The union is probably unmatched at home and abroad for its meticulousness. Management stands up to some demands, of course. It said no to the union’s request for cable TV in staff lounges, saying it would be a distraction during working hours.

Hyundai Motor posted a net profit of over 5 trillion won ($4.63 billion) last year. It rewarded its employees with fat bonuses two years in a row and during long national holidays it offers allowances for travel costs and online shopping for gifts to take home.

Thanks to such benevolence, labor-management relations couldn’t be better. The government even offered to help out the wealthy company during the recent financial crisis with subsidies of up to 2.5 million won per car through consumer tax cuts.

The problem is that the union isn’t content and is getting bolder with its demands. The union is demanding the company reserve jobs for siblings of employees who worked for the company for more than 25 years. It also wants the retirement age to be postponed to 60 from the current 58 years of age. Critics chastise the union for being feudal and forcing noncompetitive, favoritist policies in hiring on the company.

The unions of Hyundai Heavy Industries and SK Energy are campaigning for the same benefits.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem to be a big issue. Hyundai Motor hasn’t recruited for manufacturing jobs for the last seven years. The company says about 15 percent of its permanent employees are in fact idle.

The future will be a different picture. Hyundai Motor accepted the union’s demand of filling vacancies in the workplace as a result of retirements with new hires starting this year. The unionized employees, whose average age is 43, will likely renew their claim for family priorities in filling jobs.

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway’s union, which stood at the front line during battles by the militant umbrella union group The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, started this trend, shifting its primary policy concerns from political issues to welfare issues.

It’s up to the management and labor at Hyundai Motor to answer the question of what kind of nepotism is legitimate in the workplace.

For if such corporate practices spread, they could create some sticky situations such as: a doctor who has devoted himself to his profession for more than 30 years could argue that his or her sibling should get a medical license without any effort.

A judge who has spent his or her life on the bench could demand the same chance for any sibling who wants to wield a gavel.

It’s fortunate we have a constitution that mandates a one-term presidency. And with this idea of legitimate nepotism taking root, at least one former foreign minister must consider himself unlucky for being sacked for hiring his daughter.

I’m not expert enough to argue that the idea of offering job placement priorities for family members goes against the fundamental concept of equality and fairness in a labor union. I only envy the boldness and creative thinking of Hyundai Motor’s union.

The men’s room in my workplace don’t have a single bidet and I can’t imagine asking a special favor for my son if he aspires to follow my footsteps in journalism.

Hyundai Motor employees are a proud group that proclaim that they have played a critical role in making the company one of the world’s largest automakers and are entitled to such benefits but should such self-indulgence be a role model for other labor unions? It may be me but the whole thing sounds like a scene out of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

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


By Lee Cheol-ho
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