Helping the irregularsThe 2014 hit drama Misaeng (Incomplete Life), which was based on a popular webtoon series of the same name, told the tale of Jang Geu-rae, a Korean worker employed on a temporary basis. The rookie finds work in a trading company, where he experiences various discriminations from his contemporaries on the permanent payroll and is looked down upon because of his “incomplete” status. He, however, keeps trying harder, hoping he will be recognized and fully employed one day.
Despite the phenomenal popularity of the television series, conditions for Korea’s non-salaried or irregular work force have improved little. Jang Geu-rae failed to get permanent employment in the drama as well regardless of his achievements and contributions to the company. The TV show actually heightened the negative image of temporary jobs.
Temporary or contract-based jobs in themselves are reasonable arrangements. They are particularly necessary in a changing business and industrial environment. The real problem lies in an abnormal labor market structure that maintains a gap between the regular and irregular work force in wages, work hours, opportunities and promotions because of the vested interests of the unionized permanent workforce.
Temporary employment is a global trend. An irregular workforce has long existed in Korea as well. It was not a big problem until companies began to hire people more on a temporary basis following the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The twin structure of the labor market causes various side effects. An employee hired on a temporary basis is laid off when his or her contract ends after doing the same work a permanent employee for a smaller salary.
To reduce unwanted side effects, the government introduced a special law in July 2007 to restrict the contract term for an irregular employee to two years. That was aimed at stopping the corporate practice of relying on contract workers for long periods. Companies used the law to dismiss contract workers after two years. A law meant to protect the irregular workforce ended up justifying their dismissals every two years.
Temps now make up 32.5 percent of Korea’s 6.27 million wage-earning workers. The data underscores changes in the economy and particularly the services sector. According to the data, 49.3 percent of the irregular workforce chose to be temps deliberated. In other words, half the workforce prefers to work shorter and flexible hours for the sake of pursuing an education, marriage, family and other personal reasons.
But many of irregular workers want to work longer hours and have more stability. A new bill to enhance the rights of contract workers proposed by the government aims to extend the legally protected work term to four years if the workers accept it. It also bans breaking of the contract and requires employers to pay severance pay for workers who work more than three months. The unions strongly opposed the bill, and the government caved in. With contract workers - the better-off among the entire irregular workforce - so disregarded, we can only imagine the harsh conditions other part-time workers must settle for.
Some politicians siding with the unions claim the four year stipulation could force contract workers into a permanent underclass. Did they bother to ask the opinion of the irregular workforce? Do they have any idea how desperately young people want to work at a time when youth unemployment is running at 9.5 percent?
When contracts are extended to four years, more workers will have the time to learn a job and prove their ability in an organization. If they are recognized for their work, more can be hired for longer terms or on a permanent basis. Working experience of four years inevitably raises one’s potential and ability. It would be harder for employers to lay people off considering their experience and contribution. There is little for workers to lose. Just two out of 10 irregular workers now get their status upgraded to permanent employee. And that ratio is declining. Although the bill can significantly improve the chances for contrat workers, it has been killed due to opposition by the labor unions of large companies, financial institutions and public companies. Since their jobs are guaranteed until retirement, the executives of labor unions have little regard for the irregular workforce. The majority of irregular workers is not eligible to join unions. Unions that have no interest in representing the irregular workers should stop meddling in a campaign to improve their lives and rights.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 29, Page 28
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Dong-ho