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The art of avoidance

June 05,2019
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Labor Minister Lee Jae-kap takes questions from reporters about the government’s plan to push for the legislative approval of the International Labor Organization conventions on May 22. [YONHAP]
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Kim Ki-chan
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Believing in the government again proved to be foolish. On March 5, Labor Minister Lee Jae-kap said there would no longer be any tolerance for illegal raids by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). More or less admitting its condoning of violence by the militant umbrella union, the government vowed to alter its response.

But the government did not act following its brave words, given its passivity following the KCTU-led union’s act of violence to stop the merger of Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME). The matchmaking had been arranged by the government. President Moon Jae-in in March praised the move as a great feat in shipbuilding restructuring. The union responded to the president’s blessing with a raid, assault and violence. The government stayed out and only stepped forward after the HHI shareholders passed the acquisition plan despite of the union uproar.

The labor minister ordered “strong actions” in response to the illegal acts. But the damage was already done by the rioters. The government has been making a habit of disappearing at the height of commotions resulting from a decision it had backed and reappearing only when things die down.

In the World Competitiveness Ranking issued by Swiss-based International Institute for Management Development (IMD) late last year, our entrepreneurs were asked to choose five merits of the Korean economy out of 15 possible choices. In the multiple choice question, three got less than 10 percent of the vote. They were taxation, labor relations, and security and predictability in government policies. In short, Korean businessmen do not trust the government for its inconsistency in policymaking and find it hard to do business because of fierce labor disputes and heavy taxes.

The OECD and other international organizations have advised the Korean government to come up with stimuli actions focused on honing productivity. The government has trotted out several measures this year to boost corporate investment, including a 10 trillion won ($8.5 billion) resort project and other state-sponsored programs. But such projects cannot help enhance productivity. Without labor reform, productivity cannot improve, and any reform would be met with strong resistance from labor unions. The government may be resorting to heavy infrastructure spending so as not to clash with unions.

The government is eager to find excuses to criticisms about its policies. The Ministry of Employment and Labor responded to media reports that all conscripts in Korea would have to serve military duty regardless of their physical or other handicaps — instead of substituting the service with work at public offices or business sites at low wages as in the past — if the government endorses the mandate from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ministry claimed they can either choose between the active or reservist service. But it remains unclear how many would want to go on full service or how the military can maintain combat abilities with underqualified men on duty.

It is up to the ILO to decide whether Korea’s measures would violate its convention. But the government says there is no problem even though the issue goes beyond its jurisdiction once it ratifies the ILO convention.

The Ministry of Strategy and Finance also left out meaningful analyses by the OECD on our government-pushed minimum wage hikes in the summary of the OECD report on Korea. Insisting that it is not intentional, the ministry claimed it only wanted to distribute its press release with a focus on “new recommendations” by the OECD.

That would have been unimaginable in the past. The Labor Ministry under Roh Moo-hyun penalized an official who used incorrect data to promote the effectiveness of the government’s labor policy. “The current government insists first and then turns ambiguous. When things turn rough, it quickly hides or feigns actions,” said scholars in chorus during a dinner last week.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 3, Page 27