The wages of neglectDuring the Chuseok holidays, my eyes spotted two old books on the bookshelves. They were “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball” and “A Glass Soldier in the Village of the Dwarf” by Cho Se-hui from 38 years ago. The stories were about a dwarf family who were barely making ends meet. I could still feel the power and beauty of the concise sentences. The books deserve their reputation for successfully depicting the darkness of Korea’s industrialization period.
“Things do not seem to get any better although three children are working at factories,” the author wrote. “It’s all because of the low wages. When a child of the dwarf earns 100 won (9 cents) per hour, a worker in Japan earns 698 won, a worker in West Germany 856 won, a worker in the United States 1,043 won and a worker in Norway 1,087 won.”
While dreaming of utopia, the family of the dwarf collapsed. The dwarf committed suicide by jumping off a smokestack of a factory, while the eldest son, who was a labor union member, committed a murder.
How does this compare to the situation today? According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), when we earn 100 won per hour, a worker in Japan earns 132 won, workers in Germany and the United States earn 209 won and Norway 228 won. Korea caught up rapidly. Then, is our reality close to the utopia that the dwarf dreamed of? He dreamed of a place “where the people work with love and raise children with love; where love makes rain fall, love achieves equilibrium and love brings wind to the small flower of a buttercup.”
The answer is no. The president criticized the people for their “wrongful self-contempt of perceiving the country as Hell Joseon,” while opposition parties criticized the president for “being addicted to Gukbbong,” a portmanteau of the Korean words for country and methamphetamines. It denotes a blind obsession with patriotism.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle still live in the era of the dwarf. They are obsessed with polar opposite views. Today, we must make clear who the dwarfs in our society are. The average salary of the leaders of public companies and conglomerates — the top 10 percent — already surpassed that of Japan. They are no longer dwarves, they are giants.
The problem is the remaining 90 percent: workers at small companies and non-salaried workers. They are the dwarfs of our society who are suffering from exploitation.
Bang Ha-nam, head of the Korea Labor Institute, said this is a problem that cannot be resolved through the outdated paradigm of labor-business relations. Because of the rapid spread of franchise businesses and small entrepreneurship, the distinction between employees and employers became fuzzy and labor-business relations from the industrialization era have been eroded, he said.
Furthermore, the number of robots per 10,000 workers in the manufacturing sector in Korea is 437, the highest in the world. Japan’s figure is 323. Workers are competing against robots.
The politicians have both feet in the past. A classic example is the pledge of a 10,000 won minimum wage. The ruling and opposition parties treat the minimum wage as a moral issue, and they both tried to increase it.
Korea Development Institute (KDI) senior research fellow Yoon Hee-sook said that only 30 percent of workers who are receiving pay below the minimum wage are actually the poor class. “We must change the thinking that the minimum wage is a means to support the vulnerable class to ease poverty,” Yoon said.
Because households have more than one income now, total family income — not the minimum wage — is more important, Yoon pointed out. “In order to ease poverty, the earned income tax credit system is more effective than raising the minimum wage because it offers support based on the family income.”
When the world changes, so should our thinking. We must seriously think about how to find the true dwarfs of our time and rescue them from the swamp of poverty and despair.
This year alone, 2.64 million workers failed to receive the minimum wage and this says everything. Except for an increase in the wages of part-time workers based on the minimum wage hike, the wages of non-salaried workers actually went down.
According to The Hankyoreh’s analysis of Ministry of Employment and Labor data, the average hourly wage of all non-salaried workers was 11,463 won last year, up by 1.8 percent from the previous year. The increase, however, was affected by the increase in the minimum wage. It was based on the increase of the wages of the workers who work less than 8 hours a day, it said. “The hourly wage of the so-called contract workers, such as short-term workers, seconded workers, service contract workers and daily-wage laborers actually went down,” it reported.
The newspaper said the short-term workers who saw a wage hike comprised 32 percent of the non-salaried workforce. “Of the rest of the non-salaried workers, two out of three faced a reduced average income,” it analyzed. “The same trend was also seen in the hourly wage rate, which does not include overtime payments and holiday bonus payments,” it said. “Only the hourly wage rage of short-time workers went up by 7.3 percent, while the rest of the non-salaried workers saw decreases.”
The Labor Ministry said the number of new recruits in the retail, wholesale, lodging and business support service industries went up last year, and their low wages appeared to have reduced the average.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 19, Page 30
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.