Students have the right to eat

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Students have the right to eat

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Last week, irregular school employees in Gyeonggi, North Chungcheong, North Jeolla and South Jeolla provinces went on a two-day strike as a warning. According to the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education, the union has 363 demands, including regular salary positions, full bonuses, a fixed meal allowance, a vacation bonus and the same allowances as civil servants. The 750 workers who participated in the strike in Gyeonggi included cooks, nutritionists and the cafeteria staff. Schools where meal services were suspended had to provide bread and milk for students, and some parents even brought lunch to school.

In general, I support such labor struggles, however, when I spoke with a few elementary school teachers in Gyeonggi, I learned something absurd. The provincial education office sent a manual about how to respond to strikes, giving examples of unfair labor practices. The schools cannot send letters to families blaming the union and its members for depriving children of lunch and crippling school operations - which is understandable. But the letter also stated that “hiring day laborers to replace nutritionists and cooks when school meal service is suspended” and “providing lunches to students through an outside contractor” were unfair labor practices.

While I am not a legal expert, I am not convinced that the union members in charge of meal services could just take a break between noon and 1 p.m. and avoid serving lunch if they wanted to.

The educational office also said it was probably unlawful to ask the union if it was going on strike the next day. That means schools cannot notify families in advance whether students will need to bring a lunch from home or have some bread at school.

Moreover, when schools order lunches from outside contractors, they have to purchase completed items but cannot ask for them to be customized. It is OK for volunteers to deliver and serve bread and milk to the children, but it is illegal to pay them.

A Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education official explained that these opinions were the results of legal advice. In fact, they comply with related laws, such as the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act. But they still sounded quite absurd. Where are the rights of the students and parents? It is justifiable for workers to protect their rights, but what if their rights conflict with the rights of others? If the three labor rights of Article 33 of the Constitution are so important, what about the right to get an education, defined in Article 31? What was the point of revising the law and seeking the Constitutional Court’s decision to convert the school food program from a contractor service to direct management? Those who supported universal free school meals so all children could be fed equally need to provide answers.

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

By NOH JAE-HYUN
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