[VIEW 2035] Grunt workers had it better in the Joseon Dynasty

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[VIEW 2035] Grunt workers had it better in the Joseon Dynasty

Yu Sung-kuk

The author is a reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
After watching recent movie "Hansan: Rising Dragon," what sticks in my mind is not admiral Yi Sun-shin or his enemy commander. Instead, I keep thinking about the oarsmen, who kept appearing briefly in intense battle scenes. 
“Labor and trainings for oarsmen were harsh,” wrote Kim hoon, a well-known Korean author, when writing about Yi. According to some experts, the number of oarsmen for panokseon, a sort of warship used by the Joseon Dynasty in the late 16th century, was twice that of soldiers; and for a geobukseon, or turtleship, 90 people pulled the oars. 
A scene in the movie, where oarsmen groan, reminds me of the subcontractors who went on strike recently. Those subcontractors and the oarsmen in the movie have something in common: The low-level employees account for the greatest number at work, while being an essential part of their organization.
Two years ago, I went on a business trip to Geoje Island in South Gyeongsang. Back then, industrial accidents were common among subcontractors in the shipbuilding industry. At the entrance of the Okpo Port Dulle-gil Trail near the place where I stayed, there was a sign which said “Go this way to meet Chungmugong Yi Su-sin.” 
I could read the stories of the Battle of Okpo, which was the first victory against Japan in the Imjin War, walking the road. Now, along the coast where Yi won the war, large vessels under constructions and cranes were lined up. The place made me support the shipbuilding industry—it’s the very site where oarsmen and subcontractors struggled in the past and are struggling now.

According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, the number of subcontractor laborers working for Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) was 1.8 times more than that of original contractors as of 2020. Then, industrial accidents occurred 20 percent more frequently DSME workers compared to subcontractors. 
However, most of the deaths, which are hard to cover up, occurred at subcontractors. This is why many are raising doubts on whether industrial disasters at subcontractors were covered up.

In business studies, reducing negative influences or costs in advance by analyzing risk is called risk management. Over the course of time, the labor union for subcontractors has been talking about the issues of safety, discrimination and low wages. They also held a press conference in front of the building of DSME and the Ministry of Employment and Labor. What would have been changed if the company, Korea Development Bank (KDB), and the government had taken action? There must have been chances to detect danger signals.
The labor union ceased the strike as the company suggested a 4.5-percent wage increase. Many pointed out that they failed to manage risks as they lost hundreds of billions of won while making attempts to save labor costs. In other words, they could have solved the issue with less costs if they had responded in advance. 
There are so many challenges to solve after the strike: The financial loss of DSME, the current subcontracting process, the management system of KDB, existing wage systems, conflict between labor unions or laborers, etc. Before they praise that the law and rules prevail, the company and government should reflect on their failure in terms of risk management. 
Blaming the union seems to be a failure. Admiral Yi Sun-shin wrote down every single name of his oarsmen when he handed in a report to the king after battles and rewarded them. We might be able to find a way to solve this issue, benchmarking him as he managed to protect the country while paying attention even to oarsmen, who were the lowest among the naval forces.

BY YU SUNG-KUK [yu.sungkuk@joongang.co.kr]
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