First non-regular workers laid off in bill stalemate

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First non-regular workers laid off in bill stalemate


Dejected non-regular workers attend a press conference about the non-regular workers’ bill yesterday at the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in Yeongdeungpo, western Seoul. [YONHAP]

“My son will celebrate his first birthday next month, so I have invited my relatives for a party, but now I don’t know what to do,” said Kim Jin-ung, a 32-year-old father who worked at Donghae Hospital in Gangwon as a non-regular worker. “My son will suddenly have two jobless parents.”

Kim and his wife worked as non-regular workers for the state-run Workers Accident Medical Corporation, but the company fired them both on Tuesday, the final day of the two-year grace period for employers to decide if they want to hold on to non-regular employees or not.

Starting yesterday, workers in the spotlight who have held their posts for more than two years were to be offered regular contracts. But contrary to the law’s intention to protect non-regular workers, some companies may lay off their employees as they are reluctant to upgrade workers’ contracts in the current economic climate. Many non-regular workers saw their worst nightmare come true starting Tuesday.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” said Shin Myeong-ja, a 37-year-old mother who, along with eight co-workers, lost her job in the kitchen of the Seoul Veterans Hospital. “Morning came, but I had nowhere to go. My daughter told me to cheer up as she left for school, and I almost cried. As a mother, I was so embarrassed to be in this situation.”

Following the National Assembly’s failure to revise the law governing the non-regular workforce in time, layoffs have become a reality for many.

“The lawmakers are doing nothing but fighting, and I am not sure whether I should wait to be reinstated or find another job,” said Kim.

At a branch of Hanaro Mart in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, sales staff looked glum on the job yesterday. Six of their co-workers were let go as of yesterday, and those remaining were concerned for their futures.

According to the company, 239 out of the 335 employees are non-regular workers. Six whose contracts hit the two-year mark last month were fired, and 10 more might lose their jobs this month. Another 25 will lose their jobs by the end of next month.

“We have hired 30 hourly-waged workers to fill the vacancies for now,” said Lee Won-il, the retailer’s human resources manager. “They are inexperienced, so operations have slowed down. We will decide whether we should hire new employees or not after the legislature makes a decision.”

As the stalemate continued in the legislature, the Grand National Party introduced the bills in question to the Environment and Labor Committee of the National Assembly yesterday because committee chairwoman Choo Mi-ae of the Democratic Party had refused to do so the day before.

Grand National lawmaker Cho Won-jin, who represents the ruling party on the committee, said he had no choice but to introduce the bills because Choo had refused to open the committee meeting for more than five hours. Cho claimed he had acted under National Assembly law, which allows a lawmaker from a different political party to perform the job of a committee leader when he or she refuses to chair a committee.

Only eight GNP lawmakers on the committee attended the meeting when Cho introduced the bills. The bills were tabled, but no voting had taken place as of yesterday evening.

It was not the first time the bills had been introduced for deliberation at a committee by a lawmaker other than the committee head. There have been seven such instances since 1990.

The Democrats and Choo called the GNP’s move “meaningless.” They said Choo had not clearly refused to operate the committee, thus the GNP’s Cho had no right to do so.

As the mass layoffs began, Labor Minister Lee Young-hee condemned the lawmakers for failing to revise the non-regular workers’ protection statute before the two-year grace period ended on Tuesday. “Mass layoffs of non-regular workers have been realized,” Lee said. “The government-backed bills were not even discussed at the committee because of the committee chairwoman’s opposition. This is an abnormal situation that no one can understand.”

Lee also said the lawmakers and labor unions’ negotiators have acted selfishly because employers were not invited to the discussion. “The country’s two umbrella labor unions only speak for the regular workers. They just demand that non-regular workers be offered regular employment, without presenting realistic measures to support the people about to lose their jobs.” The government and the Grand National Party also held an emergency meeting yesterday morning to deal with the current situation.

“About 700,000 to 1 million non-regular workers had expected the legislature to pass a revision bill yesterday, but they faced today with great disappointment,” Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said.

The Lee administration said it will ask the business community to refrain from firing non-regular workers en masse. Plans to improve the social safety network include unemployment benefits. A nationwide survey to check on the small companies that have hired non-regular workers for the past years will also be conducted.

The Blue House also urged the legislature to resolve the situation as soon as possible, rather than wasting any more time on political fighting.

“Because of an inappropriate legal system, hundreds, tens upon thousands may face layoffs,” said Park Heong-joon, the senior officer to the president for public relations, said in an interview with SBS radio. “The legislature predicted this situation, but failed to resolve the issue. The administration is really frustrated.”

Park said the non-regular worker statute, which was intended to protect part-time, temporary and day laborers, is causing more harm than good. “The longer the revision takes, the more the non-regular workers suffer,” Park said.

The Grand Nationals proposed yesterday to hold a higher-level negotiation with the opposition parties in which floor leaders and chief policy makers will sit down to resolve the situation.

“Until now, the issue has been discussed by the environment and labor committee lawmakers, but we face an emergency now,” said Ahn Sang-soo, GNP floor leader. “It is time for the floor leaders and chief policy makers to take the matter directly in their hands.”

However, the proposal was rejected by Democrats, who demanded that the labor community should be invited to the negotiations. The Liberty Forward Party, a small conservative opposition party, said yesterday that the National Assembly should form a special committee to resolve the issue.

The administration and the Grand Nationals have urged National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyung-o to directly introduce the revision bill.

In response, Kim held a press conference yesterday and urged the ruling and opposition parties to strike a deal, dismissing the possibility of using his power to conduct a vote.

By Ser Myo-ja, Chang Chung-hoon []

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