Go slow on big social changesThe government and the ruling Saenuri Party agreed to cut legal work hours and extend the age limit for parental leave. The opposition Democratic Party has already proposed stronger working benefits. Following the current mood, eight laws related to work guidelines and gender equality are expected to pass the National Assembly this year. The government hopes to ride the wave to achieve President Park Geun-hye’s campaign promise to boost the employment rate to 70 percent through increases in job-sharing and decent paying part-time jobs. But we cannot shake off the feeling that we are rushing things. It is uncertain whether our society can adapt to these changes over such a short period of time.
No one can argue that South Koreans work too much compared with other members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. We must aim to reduce working hours to increase both quality of life and the employment rate. But preliminary steps should be taken. We must first figure out how to maintain or boost productivity and salaries with reduced working hours. Without reaching a consensus on productivity and pay, shorter working hours could trigger discontent. If fewer working hours reduce competitiveness, jobs overall could be lost.
The government has also gone too far in its proposal to allow employees taking paid or unpaid leave to care for their children up to the age of 9. Even if it is eager to improve gender inequality and conditions for working parents, measures should be in line with global standards. Only Denmark allows parental leave up to the age of 9. Japan limits it to the age of 1, and Germany and France to 3. Korea upped the legal age for parental leave to 6 in 2010, and the government now wants to raise the cap to 9. A radical change could disturb human relations in the corporate sector and be a burden on employment insurance.
The government and the ruling party must not forget the damage caused by rushing the free day care scheme. The Korea Development Institute concluded the scheme had little effect on gender inequality or boosting employment of women because vouchers were given out evenly to both working and stay-at-home mothers. Moreover, the cost of the program more than doubled to 12.3 trillion won ($11.45 billion) in just four years.
Reduced working hours and longer parental leave could generate major changes in our society. Legislation should be sought only after thorough consultations among stakeholders. The government and the ruling party must take things one step at a time. We only can suspect the government is trying to dump the welfare and employment promises on the corporate sector due to a deadlock in tax revisions. The effects must be fully studied before any fundamental changes begin. Small and midsize companies are protesting more strongly against shorter working hours than large companies. Moreover, the goal cannot be reached without social consensus and pain-sharing.