Workers deserve their duesDespite a five-year-old law on protecting the rights of nonpermanent workers, various economic and social problems are still resulting from the growing number of irregular workers. The number of people who make up this segment of the workforce has already reached six million, bolstered by a recent influx of retirees over the age of 50 who have taken up temporary positions to make ends meet.
The pace at which temporary workers are shifting to permanent positions has also fallen short of expectations. Official data puts the rate at 49 percent, but most of these simply extended their current contracts rather than agreeing to more favorable terms. In reality, just one in 10 nonpermanent workers has attained permanent status in the fairest sense of the word, and more companies are outsourcing work to part-time employees to skirt the legal obligations of hiring full-time staff.
Growing economic polarization and Korea’s low birth rate cannot be solved without improving working conditions, which includes the status of nonpermanent staff, and the three presidential candidates have been promising to enhance their rights and benefits.
Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party has pledged to fine companies that mistreat or discriminate against irregular workers; Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party has vowed to slash the contingent workforce in half; and independent Ahn Cheol-soo has pledged to enact a law ensuring all workers are treated equally regardless of their status. To make sure its voice is heard during the campaign period, the union that represents temporary workers at Hyundai Motor is even staging a protest on a power transmission tower.
Economic prescriptions that conflict with market principles can do more harm than good, and the three candidates would be well-advised to take note of a recent survey on 5,000 households in urban areas by the Korea Employment Information Service to come up with feasible policies for the contingent workforce.
The problem will also require a compromise from union activists. Representatives to the Tripartite Commission of Labor, Management and Government should work together to reach a cost-saving arrangement by allowing great flexibility in the labor market during the economic slowdown.
The move to upgrade the status of irregular workers to permanent staff after two years on the job should also be fixed or suspended. Politicians should pay attention to the needs of workers, who deserve better job security and insurance coverage.