[Column] An excuse for the labor ministry

입력 2023. 3. 21. 20:27
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For the flextime to work, Korea’s work culture must change to encourage workers to use up their rightful rest period.

Suh Kyoung-ho

The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo. The Ministry of Employment and Labor has found itself in hot water over the government proposal for a flexible application of the statutory 52-hour workweek. Upon a furious protest by workers, President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered a rework of the outline by setting the guideline that overtime beyond 60 hours a week was excessive. People Power Party (PPP) leader Kim Gy-hyeon lectured the ministry to discuss thoroughly with the PPP and the presidential office before announcing a policy direction or action.

The governing front playing the bad guy and good guy among themselves is ridiculous. The ministry must be baffled. The changes to the rigid workhour determined by the past government were already in the works. Flexibility in workhours and wider choices for workers were Yoon’s campaign promise and a part of the state agenda for his conservative government. The core of changes to the uniform 52-hour workweek was included in the outline for labor market reform announced by Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik in June last year.

In July, the ministry launched an expert group dubbed the Future Labor Market Research Council. It delivered a set of recommendations in December. The announcement on March 6 of a flexible application of the 52-hour workweek mostly reflected the recommendations in December by the expert group. The presidential office must have been fully briefed about the policy progress.

After President Moon hurriedly ordered the ministry to review the flexible outline by accommodating the voices of younger people — as if he had not been aware of the progress at all — the splinter opposition Justice Party mocked the presidential office for “acting as if the Chinese restaurant owner has seen the Jjajangmyeon [a common noodle dish] for the first time.” The ministry officials would have secretly clapped at the frank outburst from the progressive party.

The releases from the labor ministry since June last year had been consistent. It was pivoted towards fixing the Labor Standards Act, which hardly has changed from the original framework in 1953. The expert council pointed out that the current workhour system had been designed to meet the traditional factory workers’ schedule of reporting to work at the same hour and place and leaving at the same time so it does not meet the changes in working methods and lifestyles in the age of innovation and digitalization.

The government is not trying to undo the 52-hour workweek framework established through a bipartisan agreement in 2018, but to make practical amends instead. The ministry hopes to prevent employers from exploiting the comprehensive wage system to bundle in longer hours through bargaining with workers without fair compensation for work beyond 52 hours per week. But the overhaul proposal has met violent protests because of the outline to raise the maximum workweek to 69 hours.

Stretching the workweek that much would be “very extreme,” as Yoon’s chief of staff Kim Dae-ki said. Prof. Kwon Soon-won, a labor scholar at Sookmyung Women’s University and head of the advisory council, said that even under the current system, workhours can be stretched to maximum 129 hours a week. That is possible when a worker chooses to use the flextime to work for six full days out of the one-month period for flextime within the boundary of total workhours.

The changes to workhour extension from weekly basis to a longer basis requires a written agreement from the representative of workers and the working individual. The flextime cannot take place without approval from the union. The ratio of unionization in a Korean workplace, including young workers, is only 14 percent. The other 86 percent non-unionized workers must select a representative to speak for them. Young people are cynical about the government’s proposal of working longer hours to be compensated with a lengthier break, such as a monthlong vacation, as they even cannot fully use their legal annual vacations. Workers cannot easily take a lengthy break as their workload could fall on their colleagues. Some also opt to save their vacations to be compensated with money instead.

For the flextime to work, Korea’s work culture must change to encourage workers to use up their rightful rest period. The debate over workhours should give momentum to introduce more freedom in workplaces. The government must think about working with liberal civic groups like Jikjang-Gapjil 119 (Workplace Injustice 911) to correct injustices in workplaces.

Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik answers questions from lawmakers in the Environment and Labor Committee at the National Assembly, Mar. 21. [YONHAP]

Changes to workhours need cooperation from the opposition party to revise the law. But the government must push with it if it wants to see through labor reform. It needs to drive on, without shattering the overall framework in the outline for improvements. The government has a lot tougher reform tasks of easing discrepancies in the labor market and reforming the national pension, as well as raising the quota for medical school. If it gives up on the flextime, its chances in harder reforms are slimmer.

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