A love of labor

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A love of labor



Suh Kyoung-ho

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

 Presidential candidates are going all-out to woo votes from people in their 20s and 30s, whose choice will be critical in the March 9 presidential election. They act as if they are speaking on the young’s behalf, promising to raise monthly salaries for military conscripts to 2 million won ($1,651) and ease taxation on the cryptocurrency trade. Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) vows to form the youngest cabinet by recruiting people in their 30s and 40s as ministers. His rival Yoon Suk-yeol from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) promises to seat youth representative in every government office. Other pledges include 1 million won in annual basic incomes for young people (from Lee) and offering 300,000 residential units at cheap costs (from Yoon).

Cash aid packaged with grandiose promises of a rosy future cannot truly help the young generation. If the candidates seriously care about them, they must create jobs. The number of people who have given up looking for a job totaled 630,000 last year, the largest number since data started being compiled in its current form in 2014. There are many more jobless as people who gave up looking are not counted in the monthly job data. A poll of twenty-something males shows they put top priority on finding jobs.

Jobs can be increased for the young by reforming the labor sector by lifting some excessive regulations. People with will and the ability should be able to work. And if workers and unions agree, they should be able to work beyond the statutory 52-hour workweek.

Part-time, contract and temporary jobs also should be protected as much as permanent jobs in large companies and public enterprises under strong unions. The steep increases in the minimum wage primarily helped unionized workers and wiped out jobs of temporary workers, who are the most vulnerable in the job market. 
Ahn Cheol-soo, presidential candidate for the People’s Power Party, addresses members of his party at an event in Seoul on January 26. [KIM SANG-SEON]

Future jobs should be protected as much as existing jobs. As new innovations led by technology threaten existing jobs, efforts should be made to minimize shocks from a reduction in traditional jobs. And yet, the move must not stymie innovations by industries. An excessive clampdown on big-tech companies amid power abuse controversies could do more harm than good.

On the labor front, Lee vowed to shorten the workweek, enhance regular jobs, combine the privately-run SRT with public high-speed railway KTX, and apply the Basic Labor Act on workplaces employing five people or fewer. His promises mostly represent the demands of the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). Lee, who previously was critical of the militant ways of powerful unions, has turned to his party’s traditional vote base.

Yoon’s labor platform is still ambiguous. Previously, he caused controversy by saying that anyone should be able to work 120 hours a week if they want to. Although he may have meant to argue for more flexibility in the rigid 52-hour workweek rule, his comment went against the trend of shortening work hours. Since he has failed to defend himself properly, he does not seem to have a clear stance on labor reform. He is acting as an unorthodox conservative party candidate, agreeing to the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU)’ demand for the inclusion of labor representatives on boards of directors at public corporations and to time-offs for public employees and teachers for their union activities as if he represented the progressive front.

Ahn Cheol-soo of the minority People’s Party (PP) has been the most vocal — and specific — on a labor platform. Ahn, a former software entrepreneur, criticized the KCTU for pushing ahead with mass rallies during the Covid-19 pandemic, calling elite unions a “stumbling block to corporate growth and youth jobs.” He lambasted Lee and Yoon for resorting to populism to get votes from labor unions and not all workers.

Ahn’s call should not be dismissed as the desperate move of a the third player in a presidential race. He alone argues for pension and labor reforms and keeps a distance from an unprecedented competition over hefty spending. Reforms in labor and pension systems and defending fiscal integrity all implicate our young generation’s future. Pleading for their votes while neglecting their exploitation by elders is sheer hypocrisy.
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