A more uneven playing fieldAt Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, the Moon Jae-in administration approved three International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions to resubmit the revised union and other labor bills to the National Assembly. The bills shelved during the last legislature had been automatically nullified after the Assembly ended its four-year term. The government is re-tabling the bills now that the ruling Democratic Party (DP) commands a super majority in the new Assembly that launched last month.
The government cites the need to uphold “national dignity” as reasons for the legislation. It is not entirely wrong. Korea joined the ILO in 1991, but the country has not endorsed four out of eight key conventions. Of the 187 members in the ILO, 146 members — and 32 of 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — have endorsed all eight conventions. The European Union also argues for the endorsement as a condition to a free trade agreement with Korea.
Still, the Moon administration’s railroading of the bills strongly contested by the business community cannot be appropriate. The opposition and business community are opposed to them because they will worsen the rigidity in the labor market and further strengthen uncompromising unions. Even without the ILO conventions, Korean unions are super-strong and pose unrest to labor relationship.
Under the revisions aligned to the ILO conventions, dismissed employees would be eligible to join unions, the outlawed Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union will be a legitimate union and public employees and teachers will be allowed to join unions and strike. The business environment will be more slanted toward unions.
The timing is also poor. The business environment has been devastated by the outbreak of coronavirus on top of the lethargy from a sharp increase in labor costs from spikes in the minimum wage and a cut in the workweek. Why the government has to push for ILO conventions most dreaded by employers is incomprehensible. The rules can further dampen corporate sentiment and hiring. The Korean Employers’ Federation immediately issued a statement criticizing the push for labor laws.
Although the ILO conventions are necessary for Korea to meet global standards, it must take into account the country’s labor market situation. If they are needed, the government must seek balance by allowing employers to use contract workers in times of strike and establish a protection system against illegal protest activities. These mechanisms are in place in countries including EU members. To mitigate criticism about pro-union policies, the government must come up with measures reflecting the voices of employers.