Wage system doesn’t work

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Wage system doesn’t work

There’s a wholesale discount store I sometimes visit. It is a typical establishment of its kind, where middle-aged women work as cashiers. Recently I looked into what they are paid. They receive 5,300 won ($4.80) per hour, slightly higher than this year’s minimum wage of 5,210 won. They work six to seven hours a day, so they earn about 35,000 won a day and a maximum of 800,000 won a month. And they take a break of about 20 minutes of rest.

I became curious about their working conditions because of the recent movie “Cart.” This independent film has been seen by more than 800,000 people. The movie features massive layoffs that actually took place at a wholesale market.

“Misaeng,” a TV drama on the struggles of a high-school graduate - temporary contract worker Jang Grae - recently became extremely popular. Only a few episodes are left before the show ends, and the Internet is filled with users’ predictions on Jang’s fate. Will he be hired as a regular worker? Will be he fired? Will he have another choice?

“Cart” and the character of Jang Grae have their roots in the expansion of irregular workers in Korea. There are about 6 million - some say as many as 8 million - irregular employees who work full-time hours and get few or no benefits in our society, so it is no wonder the TV drama and movie struck a chord with ordinary people. The ruling and opposition parties and both conservatives and progressives worry about the increase in irregular workers. But they present different solutions.

If you approach the issue from a larger perspective, the arguments supporting employment flexibility and more protection for irregular workers collide.

Is the type of employment really the problem? During the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, laws were revised to protect irregular workers, but the outcome of that is what you see now.

President Park Geun-hye and her deputy prime minister for economy recently argued the need to reform the labor market and pointed to successful cases in Germany. According to them, Germany improved the flexibility of employment and created 1 million jobs over the past eight years. Will we be able to do that if we follow the employment model of Germany? Won’t it be simple to just copy the route?

During a trip to Europe six years ago, I visited the Korea Institute of Science and Technology’s Europe branch office in Germany. And I had three unfamiliar experiences.

First was the mole tunnel. At the institute’s branch, there was an empty lot where construction work was halted. A tunnel where a pregnant mole had been living was discovered and the institute was ordered to stop the construction for six months until the mole gave birth and recovered.

Second was a gap in educational backgrounds. The institute had two German workers who were the same age, but one was a high school graduate and the other was a university graduate. The university graduate had studied at prestigious Ruprecht-Karls-Universitat Heidelberg, often referred to simply as Heidelberg. And yet, the other worker who had only a high school diploma was receiving a salary about 10 percent higher than that of the college graduate. The institute said it was only natural, since he had a more experience.

Third was the salary gap between a regular worker and a part-time worker. The part-time worker’s salary was about 85 percent that of the regular worker. The Germany that the president and the deputy prime minister are talking about must include this Germany.

I don’t think Jang Grae and “Cart” are simply an issue of employment. Some people want to work part time because of personal circumstances. The issue is discrimination. Irregular workers, even though they work full time, receive only 50 percent of the salary of regular workers. In Europe, they receive about 80 percent. Even in Japan, which is frequently referred as a failed case of labor reform, they receive 60 percent of the pay of full-time workers. If we do nothing, part-time workers’ salaries in Korea soon will become lower than 50 percent of regular workers’ pay. It is no wonder they are angry.

Excessive selfishness and competition are covering our society. The starting salary at a conglomerate, public company or financial institution is about 40 million ($36,298) for a university graduate. The companies decide on the number without a proper evaluation of their performance. They pay no attention to their contractors, irregular workers and high school graduates. Employers only care about the company’s reputation, while the labor unions only care about their welfare.

The government is expected to present a comprehensive measure for irregular workers. Protecting them and increasing labor flexibility cannot resolve the current situation. As long as there is a heaven and hell in the wage market, the fate of Jang Grae and the workers in “Cart” is obvious. Unless we recognize ability over school background and performance over status, unless we change the wage system, the situation will only get worse.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 12, Page 34

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng ilbo.

by Lee Kyu-youn

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