Coming clean on costs

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Coming clean on costs


Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon practices his political slogans - tuition prices cut in half and full employment for irregular workers - at the University of Seoul.


Lee Chul-ho

A picture can indeed tell a thousand words, as did the one showing U.S. President Barack Obama fist-bumping a White House custodian a few years back.

The photo was dug up during rallies by public street cleaners last year and went viral on social media sites. The man in the picture exchanging friendly greetings with his own president looked so much happier and better than Korean public cleaners, who are ordered to clean the residences of public university heads and are even responsible for picking up ginkgo nuts from the pavement. Liberal Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon stepped in as their savior. He promised 6,200 of the city’s cleaning workers permanent jobs.

The Internet and social media sites pulsed with commentary. Many people said they envied Seoul citizens having a mayor who made free school lunches a priority from his first day in office, cut tuition at the University of Seoul in half and put 4,000 street cleaners on the city’s permanent payroll. Park proudly said he saved the city 5.3 billion won ($4.9 million) through direct hiring and sidestepping agency commissions.

I stopped by the University of Seoul campus the other day. A tent was erected near the front gate with banners demanding the city and the university guarantee jobs for life for the school’s cleaners. On top of permanent employment status, they are rallying for an extension of the retirement age to 70. Because the cleaners are generally older, 23 out of 63 workers at the school are already near the retirement age of 65.

This puts the city government in an awkward position. It cannot act without fearing repercussions. If it extends the retirement age for the university’s workers, it would have to do the same for all city cleaners. Public cleaners are no longer passive or ignorant. In Guro District, applicants for the job even included people with graduate degrees. In the city of Jeonju in South Jeolla, two applicants had studied abroad. In the capital, there are 1,000 who are near or in their year of retirement. Senior citizens claim they are both physically and mentally capable of doing the job, fit to drive and operate machines over the age of 60. If the retirement age is raised, the cost of maintaining the high-earning senior work force could translate into higher public utility fees or taxes.

Here is a different anecdote involving former President Lee Myung-bak during his mayoral term in Seoul. He was seriously looking into overhauling the city university.

Seoul had been subsidizing the deficit-ridden city university for up to 30 billion to 40 billion won a year. Lee thought the university needed to raise tuition up to private school levels or be fully privatized. He reasoned that more than half of the students enrolled in the University of Seoul were from local areas. He drew comparisons with the state universities in California, which charge residents $10,000 a year and $35,000 for nonresidents. He argued that the Seoul city government must put its citizens first because it is not a charitable institution.

Park is partial to the University of Seoul. He visits the campus often and is loved by the students. The campus is his political world and where he practiced his political slogans: namely, cutting tuition in half and giving full employment to irregular workers.

But in order to keep the university afloat after his cut in tuition fees, the city government’s subsidy to the university jumped 60 percent from 30.3 billion won to 48.6 billion won.

Political promises often come with a hefty price tag.

It is up to Seoul’s citizens to decide which of the two opposite approaches is better for them. Lee was a career businessman and entrepreneur before jumping into politics and prized efficiency. Civilian activist-turned-statesman Park places people first. Money and principles come second. The downside is a generational gap. If public workers are all placed on a permanent payroll, they can keep their jobs until retirement. The city cleaning jobs will have fewer replacements if the retirement age is extended. That will offer fewer public jobs for younger people.

There is another story behind the 2009 photo of Obama fist-bumping Lawrence Lipscomb, the White House custodian who also played on his basketball team. The picture put the president, who was running for a second term, in a more favorable light than his Republican contender Mitt Romney, who posed in a photo sitting in a chair enjoying a shoe shine.

A recent study showed that government agencies in the Washington area employed more low-wage workers than Walmart and McDonald’s combined. The Washington Post cited a 2012 National Employment Law Project report that claimed three out of five jobs added during the economic recovery have been low-wage jobs, paying $12 or less per hour. Lipscomb may be happy about his job in the White House, but he’s certainly not pleased about his paycheck.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 10, Page 34

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

By Lee Chul-ho

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