Broader consensus neededThe Moon Jae-in administration — bent on its pro-labor polices, including minimum wage hikes and a universal enforcement of a 52-hour workweek — is set to endorse the conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which have long been demanded by trade unions. Labor Minister Lee Jae-gap said the government will propose to ratify three of the four remaining ILO covenants that Korea has deferred since it joined the organization in 1991. The government will submit a bill for legislative review and approval after discussion with employers and unions, the minister said.
The ILO conventions are a set of recommendations on labor standards for employers and employees to refer to. They are not enforced because situations can differ by economic conditions and labor environments for each country. As the government’s labor practices need to be aligned with the international norms amid the commonplace free trade agreements, Korea cannot go on putting off ILO conventions by citing its market uniqueness.
Nevertheless, the Korean market is still too fragile to apply them. The labor community has been demanding all four keystone conventions be ratified by the National Assembly. But employers are demanding protections common in developed economies — such as allowing replacement workers during strikes and banning occupations of business sites or other illegal activities — before legalizing them in Korea.
Does the government really believe the labor sector will accept stronger punitive actions on illegal labor activities after the ILO mandates are ratified by the legislature? The militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has even boycotted a tripartite labor panel to discuss moderation of the pace of minimum wage hikes. The ILO conventions are an even trickier issue. The government proposes to endorse three of the four conventions first. Yet as soon as they pass the legislature, volunteer trainees on industrial sites will be drafted to the military as their replacement duty would fall under “forced labor.” Such contradictory conditions are hardly known in Korea. Ratification before going over the terms with the public could cause great confusion.
Given the risk of social unrest, the government must approach the issue seriously. Otherwise, it could be suspected of pushing the policy to win union votes during the general election in April next year. No matter how it is backed by the labor community, it requires broader social consensus.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 23, Page 30