Moon Jae-in Government's False Hope of Respect for Labor [News Analysis]

Jung Dae-yeon 입력 2021. 1. 8. 18:51
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Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker Back Hye-ryun, chairperson of the first legislation review subcommittee at the parliamentary Legislation and Judiciary Committee enters the meeting room after walking past the Justice Party lawmakers holding signs calling for the lawmakers to enact a bill on the punishment of corporations for serious industrial hazards on January 6. National Assembly press photographers

On January 7, the Democratic Party of Korea and the People Power Party finally agreed to enact a bill on the punishment of companies for serious industrial hazards. The bill, which lawmakers are expected to pass on January 8, is ridden with holes. The draft proposed by labor and the bereaved families of industrial accident victims was chipped away first in the government proposal, and again in the bill that the ruling and opposition parties finally agreed on. The final bill lowered the level of punishment and fines, narrowed the scope for which businesses would be held responsible, and reduced the targets subject to the bill. Worksites with four or less people will not be subject to the new bill. Worksites with 5-49 workers will be subject to the bill only after three years. Yet 80% of deaths from industrial accidents occur in workplaces with less than 50 workers. The latest agreement shames the purpose of the bill--to end fatal industrial hazards.

The bill on industrial hazards was one of the campaign pledges of President Moon Jae-in, who promoted a society that respected labor. This is not the first time that the incumbent government’s labor policy started with a bang only to end with a whimper.

In May 2017, shortly after his inauguration, President Moon met with the non-regular workers at Incheon International Airport and declared an era of zero non-regular workers. The government then tried to change the status of non-regular workers in the public sector to regular workers, but the majority simply became regular employees of subsidiaries. The form of employment may have changed, but the embers of conflict remained. A typical example was the Korea Expressway Corporation toll collectors, who were at the center of controversy over their employment contract with a subsidiary. The government’s goal of having the private sector change the status of non-regular workers to regular workers also ended fruitless.

The government promoted income-driven growth, and as an extension of that policy tried to raise the minimum wage. But the minimum wage, which had increased at double-digit rates in the first two years of the government, increased by a record low of 1.5% last year. The ruling and opposition parties increased the items included in the minimum wage in 2018. By including items like the cost of meals, which was once handed out apart from the minimum wage, the government actually reduced the real minimum wage. Last month, the ruling party passed an amendment of the Trade Union Act, after reflecting some of the demands by businesses, using another presidential campaign pledge as an excuse--the ratification of the core conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO). But procedures to ratify the conventions have paused in the National Assembly.

The attitude on labor-related bills displayed by the government and the ruling party is different from their attitude toward legislation on reforms in the Prosecution Service. The Democratic Party pushed through the protests of the opposition party and passed the amendment of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-level Officials Act. But they stressed an agreement with the opposition party when it came to labor bills. On December 24, Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the Democratic Party, met with Kim Mi-sook, the mother of the late Kim Yong-kyun (Yong-gyun), who was on a hunger strike at the National Assembly. When lawmaker Kim said, “We are in a bad situation, for the opposition party is refusing to review it (the bill on punishment for serious industrial hazards),” Kim Mi-sook asked, “Didn’t you pass all the bills (that the Democratic Party wanted) so far?” It was a question that pierced the nature of the ruling party’s behavior in connection to labor.

The interests of labor and management fiercely clash when it comes to enacting and amending labor-related bills. And some argue that the ruling party and the government, which is responsible for state affairs, cannot ignore the opinions of business. What’s more, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the economic environment has deteriorated, amplifying the voices of companies.

But others point out that the fundamental cause of labor problems is the lack of a firm philosophy and direction from the ruling party and government. They argue that the incumbent government, which presented a number of bold labor promises to satisfy the heightened demand of citizens in a presidential election following the candlelight demonstrations, repeatedly withdrew such policies due to opposition from businesses after entering office. Cho Don-moon, professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Korea said, “The problem is that the government treats basic labor rights guaranteed in the Constitution and law not as a rights issue, but as a card to trade.”

ⓒ 경향신문 & 경향닷컴(, 무단전재 및 재배포 금지

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