A market that cares

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A market that cares

Labor unions in Britain are getting growing support for their opposition to the government’s new trade union bills designed to tighten rules on strikes and political donations. A major part of the reform bill proposes to lift a ban on the hiring of agency workers to replace striking staff so as not to cause disruptions in industrial activity if permanent workers go on strike. Trade unions are naturally enraged as they would lose their biggest collective action leverage. Yet surprisingly the change is also opposed by employers as well. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which lobbies for agency staff, expressed concerns over the move, claiming it could end “unjustified disruption to working people’s lives.” Such protests from employers would be unthinkable in Korea where the government and companies are trying to ease regulations to allow flexibility in the labor sector by widening work access to temporary workers and diluting the power of unionized workers.

Kate Shoesmith, head of policy at the REC, told the BBC, “We are not convinced that putting agencies and temporary workers into the middle of difficult industrial relations is a good idea for agencies, workers, or their clients.” She added, “Our members want to provide the best possible levels of service to their clients, but they also have a duty to care for the workers they send out on assignment.” She was basically saying that agency staff should not be used as easy replacements during strikes. The association believes that labor relations should be resolved through constructive discussions and compromise rather via makeshift actions.

Such a farsighted concern for the rights of all workers in the labor market is admirable. It underscores the huge difference between Korean and British business groups. We have to wonder where Korean employers’ interests lie when they hire temporary workers. Do they really care about them or do they regard them simply as less expensive and easily disposable replacements for salaried workers? Obviously the British employers have given deeper thought to the whole situation and how it affects society.

European labor unions are equally reasonable. Late last year the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) issued a policy proposal based on a study of working hours. Its study found that a male worker on the permanent payroll worked 4.4 hours beyond normal working hours a week on average upon company demand. This causes stress for the permanent employees. Workers on contracts, however, want to work overtime for more pay. The DGB requested a more flexible working hour arrangement reflecting demands of employers and employees. It was proposing that extra work be given to non-regular workers so that they could earn more. The suggestion was based on the wishes of the workers themselves.

Our labor unions would never hear of this suggestion. They would suspect it as mischievous. They are threatening to strike against corporate decisions to incrementally reduce working hours. Despite individual wishes, non-regular employment contracts cannot be stretched beyond two years because of union opposition. The local unions have no consideration for individual conditions and wishes. It is a pity that our industrial sites are still defined by collective will.

On Friday, Stefan Lofven, a welder-turned politician, celebrated his first anniversary in office as the Swedish Prime Minister. After heading the trade union IF Metall, he became leader of the Social Democrats and established the first liberal government in eight years after winning a general election. Many had expected a sharp retreat in the labor reform agenda under a unionist-turned prime minister. But Lofven pushed ahead with the previous conservative government’s labor agenda with the same will and greater discretion on budgeting.

The Swedish government has decided to the end a gender equality bonus, a subsidy that was started in 2008 by a previous centrist government to encourage fathers to take more of a role in raising children and to allow mothers to return to work more easily by 2017, saying it was costing the government too much without helping greatly to encourage co-parenting. Parental sharing cannot be forced with allowances. In contrast, our government audaciously digs into employment insurance funds that were taken out of workers’ monthly salary to offer various incentives as if it was doing employees a favor.

Before anything, labor, employers and the government must change their mindsets about labor reform. Any reform from employers, who merely seek greater profits, or labor, which places priority on collective needs over individual ones, will only be rhetorical and feigned. No one cares about the others, about society, or about the future. A market that cares is strongest. And youth unemployment can only be solved by a caring society.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 5, Page 32

*The author is an editorial writer and senior reporter on labor affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Ki-chan
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