[Column] We can no longer tolerate an economy that kills people

한겨레 입력 2021. 1. 18. 19:16
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S. Korea needs to seriously reconsider worker safety issues from a perspective other than brutal efficiency
Kang Jun-man

By Kang Jun-man, professor of journalism at Jeonbuk National University

If someone were to ask me what impressed me the most last year, I guess it would be what I heard on the morning of Dec. 24 in a tent that the Justice Party had set up in front of the National Assembly. The tent was occupied by protesters calling for the enactment of the Severe Accident Corporate Punishment Act, including Kim Mi-suk, mother of Kim Yong-gyun, a young man who died in an industrial accident in 2018.

While visiting Kim Mi-suk, who was fasting in the tent, Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party, complained about how the opposition People Power Party wasn’t cooperating with the Democratic Party’s efforts to pass the bill. Kim Mi-suk retorted, “Hasn’t the ruling party passed everything [that it wanted]? If you’ve passed all those bills, do you really need the opposition party’s help to pass this one?”

The question took Kim Tae-nyeon by surprise, and for a moment he was lost for words. This scene, which I watched on television, left me with plenty to ponder.

While I don’t approve of the way the Democratic Party has rammed through other bills, I feel differently about the Severe Accident Corporate Punishment Act. I would have supported an effort to ram through that bill.

Here’s how I’d respond to an accusation of inconsistency on this point: We must all be crazy to sit back and watch as seven people die on the job every day. My point is that a substantial number of people killed in industrial accidents can be seen as the victims of “social murder.”

Nevertheless, the Severe Accident Corporate Punishment Act that passed the floor of the National Assembly on Jan. 8 was considerably watered down from the original draft. The Democratic Party has already been savagely criticized for that, and I don’t want to add my voice to that criticism.

What I’d like to know is why the Democratic Party watered the bill down, when it must have expected such criticism. Some people have accused party lawmakers of being incompetent or making unprincipled compromises, but perhaps another question would be more apt. Would the Democratic Party have weakened the bill as it did if it feared major political fallout, such as a collapse of public support?

Needless to say, there were no major political consequences. In that case, I think we may need to think about this from a different perspective. I think the issue of industrial accidents is trapped in path dependence.

Path dependence describes the fact that, once a given path has been chosen, the habit of following that path and the inertia of the systems that have formed around it make it extremely difficult to change course. Since the path I’m describing here also develops in our own attitudes, this is something that everyone needs to reflect on.

In retrospect, human rights were undervalued by the “high-speed, compressed growth” of which Koreans are so proud. The Gyeongbu Expressway, which was built 50 years ago, was lauded as a monumental achievement by the Korean people, but 77 people died during its construction. Koreans indulged in some major celebrations when the country first reached US$10 billion in exports in 1977, but that was fueled by the sacrifice of countless workers such as Jeon Tae-il, who set himself on fire to protest horrific working conditions in 1970.

Koreans endured a highly regimented lifestyle in order to reach the threshold of a wealthy country, but the habits of a dictatorship that sacrificed the weak members of society on the altar of development became a “path” that is deeply rooted in all of us. It’s probably because of that attitudinal pathway that Korea’s approach to battling COVID-19, an approach in which we have taken great pride, has essentially disregarded weaker members of society.

“Safety first” has felt like a luxury for Koreans who have lived their lives demanding unceasing progress, and such sentiments have also been the source of corporate competitiveness. Corporate systems and practices that have been grounded in this risk-tolerant culture have persisted to the present day with few major changes.

This isn’t easy to change in the short term, and there’s some truth to the claim that harsh punishment isn’t the solution. The real question is how much companies have tried to change those systems and practices and how much attention has been paid to those efforts by the government, politicians and the press.

The answers are very discouraging. As a nation, Koreans don’t take action until a problem is dropped in their lap.

Here’s my question for figures in the business and financial communities. Are you okay with seven people dying every day?

Why have you stayed silent until now, when workers’ explosive rage has been channeled into passing the Severe Accident Corporate Punishment Act? Isn’t that the result of corporations’ failure to take responsibility for their impact on society?

Do companies lack the free will to find reasonable, win-win solutions to problems on their own, before the government and politicians get involved? If you’d sought cooperation with the government and society and proposed setting up a permanent multilateral deliberative body to handle industrial accidents, you’d enjoy more trust and respect. So why are you so focused on defending yourselves through lobbying and other forms of pressure?

The economy is truly important. It’s what keeps the country running even in times of intractable political gridlock. I’m deeply grateful to all businesspeople.

But we can no longer tolerate an economy that kills people. It’s time we looked at things from a different perspective.

By Kang Jun-man, professor of journalism at Jeonbuk National University

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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