No delay in labor reform

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No delay in labor reform

The landmark compromise on a set of labor-sector reforms that the government, labor and employers reached in September fell apart with the umbrella union group breaking the agreement and bolting out of the tripartite framework. The Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) in a press conference on Tuesday said it was walking away from the agreement in protest to the government’s unilateral inclusion of guidelines on employment and dismissal in the labor-related bills proposed to the legislature.

But the real motives of the FKTU may lie elsewhere. Hard-line forces within the group got the upper hand ahead of its own executive and parliamentary elections in April. The government said the two guidelines it proposed were based on its administrative right to initiate acts.

The grand compromise had been internationally envied, and we were proud of having voluntarily worked out the reforms. The government is partly at fault. It initiated the negotiations as if it could yield to anything the labor sector asked for - such as extensions in the retirement age and improvements in base salary. As a result, little room was left for maneuvering in the first place. The labor sector had little to lose, as it had already gained enough. The only headway made in the negotiations was in reducing work hours and narrowing the gap between irregular and regular workers. But no agreement was reached on terms for irregular and agency workers. The labor sector only said it would consider the offers.

Labor, however, has now pushed too far. The two proposals are strictly government jurisdiction. They are unrelated to the labor reform deal reached by the tripartite committee. They are in favor of workers and drew disgruntlement from employers. Yet the labor union oppose them, claiming they could be used to facilitate dismissals. Regardless of the walkout, the deal must not be wasted. The agreement was reached under the tripartite act. It stays legally binding even if one of the concerning parties breaks it.

The fallout would first damage irregular workers and jobless young people. Their rights and opportunities won’t improve. Thousands of jobs for young people are at risk. Human resource management at companies would be in chaos. The already-fragile economy cannot afford such a major setback. The government must try to minimize side effects and continue the drive for labor reform.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 20, Page 30

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