Keep working on reform
Kim Dae-hwan, chairman of the Economic and Social Development Commission who led negotiations on labor reform between employers and unions, offered his resignation when the talks collapsed. Wisely, the presidential office plans to refuse the offer and persuade Kim to stay.
The timing is not right for him to exit.
There is too much work to be done before the ad hoc committee expires in September. During the past three months, there were some areas of agreement and the reform work should continue from there. Employers and unions have narrowed their differences on revising the scope of base salary, reducing work hours and extending the retirement age. The government must follow up to legalize those issues, but the reform effort might not move ahead if Kim leaves.
Kim is not solely responsible for the failure of the talks. Kim Dong-man, head of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, thanked the government for its efforts in announcing the group’s exit from the negotiations. Labor-management relationships could worsen without the government’s mediating role.
The more militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions already has voted for a general strike starting April 24. The strike by the KCTU is not surprising, since it had refused to join the three-way negotiations for structural reform from the beginning. Han Sang-gyun, upon being elected to head the country’s largest umbrella union group in its first direct election, pledged a general strike against the government. A nationwide strike in 2012 sponsored by the group gathered little support.
But this time could be different. The strike comes during a period when public sentiment toward the government and the ruling party is at its worst due to the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy and the bombshell bribery scandal involving political and government bigwigs. The trade group is expected to use the strike as a catalyst for an anti-government campaign.
Unions of government employees and teachers plan to join the strike because of their opposition to changes in the public employee pension scheme. After leaving the talks, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions also might participate. Employers have announced they won’t agree to further negotiations on wages if the strike proceeds.
The government’s role has become more crucial than ever in hopes of keeping the three-way negotiations alive.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 14, Page 30