Proposal to update labor laws pleases absolutely nobody

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Proposal to update labor laws pleases absolutely nobody

A government effort to update labor laws to meet international standards faces resistance from both unions and businesses.

Just after a cabinet meeting approved the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s proposal for labor law amendments on Tuesday, the plan was met with heavy opposition from all sides.

“The [amendment] … is full of content that would be embarrassing in front of the international community,” read a statement from the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), a major umbrella union.

Business groups also disapproved.

“We express regret as the requests of businesses have been excluded and [the amendments] have been prepared by siding with labor,” said business lobbying group Korea Enterprises Federation (KEF) in a statement.

The criticism comes as Korea races to change labor laws amid increasing pressure from the European Union. Korea had agreed to ratify four International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions as part of its free trade deal with the European bloc.

The EU called in July for a panel of experts to review violations regarding Seoul’s failure to ratify the ILO conventions.

While Korea joined the ILO back in 1991, it deferred ratifying the freedom of association and protection of the right to organization; the right to organize and collectively bargain; and the forced labor conventions.

Ratification means changing local laws that run contrary to the conventions. The government proposal would allow senior government employees, fired workers or the unemployed to join or form unions.

Businesses have suggested measures such as implementing job sharing, lengthening agreements between companies and restricting striking workers from occupying company offices to offset the possible ramifications from ratifying the conventions.

The government agreed to some of the proposals, such as lengthening agreements, but business lobbying groups still argue that the concessions were not enough.

“The [amendments] should be discussed and pursued in respect to changing the adversarial, conflicting and backward relationship between labor and business to one that is cooperative, conciliatory and advanced,” said KEF.

Unions have rejected such proposals and instead called for stronger protection of labor rights.

“The amendment proposal seems to allow fired employees and the unemployed to join unions; however, it includes a clause that they must not impede the employer from running an effective business operation,” said FKTU. “Based on the business, the union may become meaningless.”

Following the cabinet meeting approval, the National Assembly will now decide whether to accept the government proposal.

Despite the government effort to mediate between the two sides, the negative reception to the cabinet meeting approval likely means the amendments will remain in fierce contention, meaning the National Assembly is unlikely to make a swift decision on the matter.

The main opposition, the Liberty Korea Party, has expressed disapproval with the amendments, arguing that they will give unions more influence.

But the government also has to contend with the pressure from the EU. The European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom visited Korea in April, warning that the Korean government needs to speed up its efforts.

BY CHAE YUN-HWAN [chae.yunhwan@joongang.co.kr]

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