Time for grand consensus

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Time for grand consensus

The government and ruling Saenuri Party have finally kicked off a long-awaited debate on reforming our sclerotic labor market. Deputy Prime Minister for the Economy and Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan stressed on Wednesday a need to correct the imbalance in the pay for staffers and non-salaried workers. Following Choi’s attack on the “overprotection of salaried workers,” the Saenuri’s floor leader Kim Moo-sung underscored the importance of a consensus between labor and management and unions.

Despite the need for significant labor reform, the issue has been a hot potato going back many administrations. The fact that President Park Geun-hye and the ruling party have raised the issue as a top priority carries great significance, as it could help put our economy back on track as well as lead to real reform by easing the polarization of the labor market.

The distorted structure of the market - as exemplified by the overprotection of salaried workers and the overuse of temporary employees - is a cross-section of our society’s various types of economic and social discrimination. Companies are increasingly reluctant to hire regular workers for fear of labor unions’ overprotection of them, which leaves little room for improving non-regular workers’ treatment. The inflexibility of regular workers’ employment conditions has ironically led to a widening of the gap.

With the number of part-time contract workers hitting 6.07 million this year, or 32.1 percent of the entire workforce, the wage gap got worse, from 64 percent of regular workers’ pay in 2007 to 55 percent in 2013. When unionized workers of big companies earned an average monthly salary of 3.92 million won ($3,572), their counterparts in small and midsize enterprises with no unions only took home 1.35 million won. While nearly 99 percent of salaried workers at large companies are covered by the national pension plan and life insurance, only 34.2 percent of their counterparts were in the pension plan and only 40.9 percent had life insurance.

The solution must be found in ending the overprotection of salaried workers and improving the status of non-regular workers. What we need is a grand social consensus that can be reached at the Economic and Social Development Commission, a tripartite body that represents labor, management and politicians. We hope the commission starts a full-fledged discussion on the issue.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 28, Page 30

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