Empowering unions

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Empowering unions


Kim Ki-chan
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

When a constitutional amendment was proposed in March 2018, I should have noticed something was up. When a constitutional revision bill was scrapped in May, I should have understood that the liberal administration would get the revision into law in other ways. The constitutional revision enabled the establishment of unions with political purposes. As “political unions” would be allowed, there would not be restrictions on the negotiating bodies. That means labor unions could strike for political and social issues, not to mention issues related to the management and HR decisions of their companies. Would such strikes be illegal? Nope. They would be guaranteed by the constitution.

The government often said that jobs come from the private sector. But it was a flattery. Can strong unions create jobs? The bill for the constitutional amendment seemed to treat business owners as some sort of necessary evils. I can assume so, as Kim Sang-jo — then Fair Trade Commissioner and now Blue House Policy Advisor — was beating up on conglomerates.

As 16 months have passed since then, the “job-creating government” in the Blue House seems critically damaged. The highlight was the labor relations law amendment bill presented by the ruling Democratic Party on July 30, as the International Labor Organization’s basic convention needed to be ratified.

Under the proposed amendment, fired employees can even join a union and negotiate with the company that fired them. Former union members are not subject to the principle of no work, no pay. Companies are also pressured to negotiate with all unions representing them. The amendment also encourages the central and local governments to negotiate by industry and region. It could lead to a controversy of unlawful practice by the state.

According to the freedom of assembly report from the International Labor Organization (ILO), workers can go on strike for economic and social conditions. If workers strike for an issue that the owner cannot resolve, the company would struggle. Also, it won’t be easy to regulate because the law for union strikes is in support of a certain ideology or policy. I strongly suspect that the government and ruling party want to reflect the scrapped constitutional amendment in the revision of labor laws in order to ratify the ILO convention.

The government may have felt sorry for the companies and added a clause to appease them. The effective period of collective bargain was increased from two to three years, and occupying production facility is banned.

Could it be a “measure to keep balance of powers between the management and unions?” What good does it do when production facilities cannot operate during a strike?

Ratification of the ILO basic convention is undoubtedly a national task. But at least, it should be reviewed to decide whether it really fits our situation. There won’t be any issues if other related laws are also changed to the level of other countries that ratified the ILO convention. In fact, the ban on the substitution of workers during a strike — and the unfair labor practice being only applied to the users — exists in Korea only. The amendment did not cover them. Why? Because the unions will certainly oppose. The government may think that it does not make sense to trigger union opposition when unions should in fact be encouraged.

The possibility for the labor law amendment to pass the National Assembly is not high. The government is well aware of it. So I want to think that the government is simply promoting it to show its efforts as the European Union and the ILO are pressuring Korea for ratification of the core parts of the ILO convention.

The global economy is harsh and not tolerant. It would be the end if Korea is pushed out of international competition. One’s falling behind would be an opportunity for another. No country or company is exempt from the realities. The environment is heartless. How hard would it be for companies faced with the unexpected storm of the trade war to accommodate the revised labor law?

JoongAng Ilbo, July 31, Page 27
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