Get back to business

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Get back to business

Well-paid Korean labor unions kick off a general strike one after another. Starting with last Friday’s walkout by the Korean Financial Industry Union, Hyundai Motor on Monday staged a general strike, which will be followed by public sector unions, including railways and hospitals, today. Regardless of the differences in the kinds of work they do, their goal is the same: to protect their own interests despite a desperate call for innovation in ever-competitive markets. To make things worse, the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union is set to join the general strike sooner or later.

Financial, railways, subway and hospital services are crucial to the public as they are directly connected to the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Despite their strong opposition to the introduction of performance-based pay, umbrella union groups representing such pivotal industries enjoy the best-possible benefits in Korea, as clearly seen in their hefty salaries and unrivaled privileges to be able to work until their statutory retirement age.

Nevertheless, they cannot avoid the harsh ramifications of a long-term slump in the Korean economy mired in the unprecedented two percent-range growth over the past several years. Jobless rates for young people has reached as high as 10 percent, while the number of the long-term unemployed — those without jobs for more than six months — hit a record high last month.

Under such dire circumstances, Hyundai Motor’s union went into an all-out strike because of the “low pay” the employees receive. That’s a preposterous argument. The average annual salary of workers at the five major carmakers in Korea is 93.13 million won ($83,977), which is higher than Toyota’s 79.61 million won and Volkswagen’s 78.41 million won. That’s why local carmakers rush overseas to set up manufacturing plants to raise their price competitiveness in global markets. Due to the move, Korea is no longer a member of the global Big Five any more.

The only way for the public sector to survive is by changing their pay system to a performance-based one from a seniority-based one. But they vehemently resist it, turning a blind eye to the most effective solution to avert forced manpower restructuring. The Korean Railway Workers’ Union embarks on a strike at 9 am today. The strike with the participation of subway labor unions across the nation can hardly get support from the public. A walkout without any consideration of the tough times for our economy cannot be justified. They must immediately return to their jobs and face up to the reality.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 27, Page 30
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