The labor reform mystery

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The labor reform mystery


To work is to make value in life. The Bible commands that “if anyone does not want to work, neither should he eat.” There should be no disagreement about this. But if you see someone get paid double for the same work you do, you would feel betrayed and disgruntled. How wonderful it would be if everything was fair and equal. But that cannot be. Ability, competition and reward are also what compose work. There would only be chaos if equality in opportunities is confused as universal equality.

“Same pay for same labor” is a reasonable concept. What it means is to reward irregular workers the same salary as their permanent counterparts if they generate the same performance.

The Japanese government plans to propose a bill to apply this principle to agency workers as well as contract workers. The idea has long been demanded by the labor sector. Management does not oppose the move. It, too, sees the need to rationalize the practice of hiring workers on a temporary basis to save labor costs.

But we no longer hear the slogan. The labor sector no longer speaks of it. The idea does not work in the current pay system, where salaries automatically go up according to the number of working years. It serves the permanent work force whose jobs are ensured until retirement. The concept of “same pay for same labor” is only possible if salaries are paid out according to the job description, role and performance. The pay system for the permanent work force needs to change first. This poses a dilemma for the union, which is composed of permanent workers. They would have to yield income security and other vested interests in order to incorporate the concept. It is why they dumped it along the way.

The so-called contract workers protection bill proposed by the government is designed to narrow inequalities in the workplace. It aims to fix the cost-saving hiring practice. It would make the company offer severance payment for agency workers starting from three months of work, give allowances if it does not rehire them on a permanent basis after contracts end, and prohibit placing irregular workers in hazardous lines of work. Even if pay is not the same, the terms would be a great relief for the irregular work force.

The bill, however, was killed. How it was done remains a mystery. The Ministry of Employment and Labor was not aware that its bill was nullified. Labor Minister Lee Ki-kweon called it an act of mandate, suggesting it was a politically-motivated decision. How a mandate was administered by the president without a cabinet member’s awareness is incomprehensible.

The labor reform drive was questionable from the beginning. It was unclear whether it was the government leading it or a voluntary act among the labor, union and politicians. The Labor Ministry hardly had any room to speak due to constant meddling from the hierarchy and other government offices. There were too many back-seat drivers. The work to redesign the regulations and framework became more and more entangled. The reform goal of increasing jobs and easing inequalities in the labor market was lost.

The International Labor Organization concluded that income inequality was the cause of the Great Recession of 2007-09. It warned that if labor income deteriorates or the gap is left unattended, the world economy could no longer grow.

Korean irregular workers earned 54 percent of the paycheck given to the permanent workforce last year. Few felt that they were being rewarded for their work. They merely work to meet the working hour and must cut back to make ends meet. If people are not rightfully rewarded for their labor, the feedback loop to keep the economy running through the input of investment and spending cannot work.

The derailment in the labor reform drive must be reexamined. A probe is required on the mysterious disappearance of the contract workers bill and breakdown in the tripartite agreement and framework.

Reinvestigation of the dubious trajectory can pave the way for a new direction. A white paper could also serve as a manual for predictable public policy. The white paper must reflect all the voices of labor, management and government. There must be no tolerance. The people should be the judges. We cannot afford more mistakes.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 15, Page 28

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

by Kim Ki-chan

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