[Column] One-sided labor reform cannot succeed

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[Column] One-sided labor reform cannot succeed

Lee Ha-kyung

The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has set his foot on a labor reform drive. After forcing cargo truckers on strike to return to work through the unprecedented use of an executive order, Yoon mentioned the dual structure of our labor market by insisting that changing the “exploitative” working system will be the true way of upholding the value of labor. The essence of the reform is to fix the unfair wage system in Korea, where so-called irregular workers of small and mid-sized companies receive just about 40 percent of what their regular counterparts earn.

President Yoon also vowed to root out corruption in labor unions. The People Power Party (PPP) proposed a revision to the Labor Union Act, which would mandate outside auditing of the books of unions and reporting the results of the auditing to administrative authorities. The move has startled the combative Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) accused of embezzling funds from members.

As a prosecutor in the Gwangju District Prosecutors’ office 19 years ago, Yoon investigated the suspicious hiring practices of the union of Kia Corp. and set his mind on delving into corruption in the labor sector. But the mighty KCTU was untouchable under the Moon Jae-in administration after it contributed to unseating former president Park Geun-hye through uninterrupted rallies and bringing ruling power to the Democratic Party (DP). President Yoon, who has no debt to the KCTU, is in a better position to initiate the long-awaited labor reform. The public is siding with the president on the issue.

But the PPP lags behind the president’s push for reform. The conservative party could take power back by simply riding on the popularity of the former prosecutor-turned-presidential candidate. But the party remains under defeatism and complacency after the presidential impeachment of its former boss.
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks about the need for labor, education and pension reforms to 200 young people at the guest house of the Blue House on Dec. 20. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

The conservative government under president Lee Myung-bak attempted reform in the deficit-ridden government employee pension fund. But the move hardly can be called a reform, as it only cut payouts for future civil servants while leaving the same amount for those on the payroll. No PPP legislator came forward to chair the government employee pension fund reform committee in the National Assembly. PPP policy chief Joo Ho-young was eventually forced to head the committee. The PPP feared vehement resistance from the labor union of government employees under the powerful KCTU. Can President Yoon succeed in labor reform with such a cowardly party?

Luckily, the president has the public on his side. The DP won’t be able to keep defending the militant KCTU. As long as the public sentiment remains favorable, the fight against the powerful umbrella union could have a chance to win. The conservatives support Yoon’s hard-line stance against the KCTU. But the moderates and the progressives show a mixed reaction. They disapprove of the outmoded ways of the KCTU yet won’t tolerate overbearing attitudes towards workers. The reform will face strong resistance if it oppresses the labor movement under the pretext of correcting aberrant ways. The PPP is innately unfriendly toward the union movement.

President Yoon could be different. His acquaintances find him high-minded and strong against the strong, but generous towards the weak. Yoon has been giving to others and made it a habit to share what he has. That can help explain why he had just 20 million won ($15,576) in his personal wealth at the time he got married.

If labor activist-turned-politician Roh Hoe-chan were still alive, he would approve of the president’s labor reform aimed to address the deepening disparities between workers. Roh had stood for the vulnerable without leaning to the far left. While accepting to head the progressive Justice Party in 2012, Roh reminded the public of the hardship of female cleaners who had to go to work at glitzy high-rises in Gangnam at 4 a.m. “Where were you when these workers sought our help while living as invisible human beings earning just 850,000 won a month?” President Yoon probably would think in the same way as Roh.

No one can speak for the real suffering of others. A one-sided reform by claiming to understand the hardships of underprivileged workers could provoke a strong backlash. In a recent meeting of legislators close to President Yoon, Lee Chae-pil, a labor minister under president Lee Myung-bak, advised members of the PPP to pay heed to various voices from the labor and management sector from the early stage of reform, as the government-led reform failed at the time.

On Christmas Day, President Yoon comforted teenage orphans readying for independence and a group of children in shelter. Jesus was born in a stable, but he become the savior of mankind, Yoon told them. Paul, a Roman and persecutor of Christians, was made an apostle to help spread Christianity to the rest of the world. The religion gained convincing impetus when preached by an outsider.

If labor reform neglects and isolates workers, it cannot be a reform. The reform can succeed only when it has warm cause instead of a top-to-bottom approach.
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