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President asks Korean labor to improve its productivity

May 02,2019
One day after his visit to a Samsung Electronics factory, President Moon Jae-in urged the labor community on Wednesday to reshape its attitudes to promote mutual prosperity and expressed his hope for better labor productivity.

The message was posted on Moon’s Facebook account to mark Labor Day. In it, the president asked the labor community to change its mindset and act as a mainstream member of society.

“In the past, labor had earned respect through ‘fighting’ in an uneven playing field,” he said. “But in the future, I believe it will need to earn respect through ‘mutual prosperity.’”

“The government will always put in effort,” he said. “The labor community must work together with an attitude that it, too, is a mainstream member of our society.”

A senior official of the Blue House told the JoongAng Ilbo that the message was aimed at asking the labor community to improve their work productivity for mutual prosperity.

“This year’s message was produced after the president had a long deliberation,” he said, adding that the expression - mutual prosperity - was not in the initial draft but added later.

“The message reflects the shift of perception that the labor community is no longer weak or a victim to be protected, and that it needs to play a more proactive role to take responsibility for economic growth,” he said.

In his message, Moon said increasing the minimum wage, offering regular contracts to irregular workers and introducing the 52-hour workweek system were “all policies to improve the workers’ quality of life and to improve the quality of labor.”

The message indicated that Moon’s ultimate goal of improving working conditions was increasing labor productivity. It is the first time that Moon linked his labor polices to productivity, not the welfare of workers.

In 2017, Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) per hour worked, a measure of labor productivity, was ranked 29th out of the 36 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In his message on last year’s Labor Day, Moon did mention labor quality.

“Last year, he was talking about the quality of labor to emphasize the principle that the same wage should be given for the same work,” the presidential aide said. “This year, he used the term to talk about improving productivity.”

Moon also said he expects that stalled three-way dialogue between employers, unions and the government will soon be normalized. He said his government has resolved many long-standing labor issues that it inherited from the predecessors, but that there is still more to be done. “I hope to see a great outcome by the normalization of the Economic, Social and Labor Council at the earliest date,” he said.

The tripartite council, a presidential advisory body, was formed in June of last year, but it has failed to produce progress on resolving sensitive issues as labor representatives, particularly the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, refused to participate.

Moon’s Labor Day message can be interpreted as pressuring the militant umbrella union to join the negotiations. The timing is also sensitive, since Moon visited the Samsung Electronics factory in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, on Tuesday and promised the government’s full support for the company’s ambition to become the world No. 1 in the system semiconductor foundry sector by 2030. With his Labor Day comments and Samsung visit, complaints are growing in the labor community and among liberals that Moon is turning “chaebol-friendly,” but a top government official said Moon has always been business-friendly.

“Since he took office, he repeatedly talked about supporting companies,” he said. “But ministers and aides, who were former activists, failed to act on the president’s orders to please their usual patrons, such as the unions. Moon named Noh Young-min, who once ran a business, as the successor of Im Jong-seok, who was a former activist, as his chief of staff. The president’s first order to Noh was to meet with the business community.”

BY KANG TAE-HWA, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]