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An unbalanced feeling

The economy’s habitat must be respected as it has its own natural order.
Feb 06,2018
“Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re the president of the minimum wage? Who gave you the order to take the side of the employers?” lambasted a representative of employees at a minimum wage commission meeting on Jan. 31. He was challenging Uh Soo-bong, who chaired the conference, over his remarks about the need for moderation in the pace of minimum wage hikes in an interview with the media.

Uh, who endorsed this year’s 16.4 percent hike, has been advising against the government’s desire to up the minimum wage to 10,000 won ($9.40) within the next couple of years to fulfill the president’s campaign pledge. Already, there have been problems experienced by small workplaces after the sudden spike in minimum wage payments. The labor side is now out to replace him for betraying them. The commission is a government arbitration body between employers and employees. But under this liberal government, the body seems to entirely serve labor.

The next day, Rep. Kim Sung-tae of the Liberty Korea Party took to the podium as the floor leader of the main opposition party and made an impromptu criticism of unions for their attempt to gain political power under the liberal government. The comment from the conservative party floor leader upset unions because Kim had served as the head of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions before becoming a lawmaker. He warned his former associates that a labor organization riding on the back of political power cannot be respected as a genuine labor movement.

The labor community must stop and ask why it is under such an accusation. The union has gotten almost everything it could possibly want from the Moon Jae-in administration. Contract workers have been placed on permanent payrolls. Minimum wages are set to reach 10,000 won by 2020. They have not only gotten richer, but went on a fast track up the social ladder. Senior members of labor organizations were recruited to head public institutions like the Korea Polytechnics and Human Resources Development Service of Korea. The unions that rallied against government appointments at public institutions unsurprisingly kept silent when they saw their members seated as heads of public corporations.

The government takes pain not to annoy the labor unions. In a recent tripartite meeting of the government, labor and employers, which opened for the first time in eight years and two months with the presence of the hard-line union group Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the labor side warned that it won’t walk out if the government changes its stance on working hours and minimum wages. Kim Young-joo, minister of employment and labor, kept silent. The union took the helm of the tripartite meeting.

It is not easy to serve in the civil service these days. A government official said he was stunned by a comment by a scholar who has been involved in government work. He said bureaucrats need to be taught, and if they cannot keep up, they should be sacked. The official said there were so many bosses these days that government officials can hardly speak their mind. Employers are in a more pitiful position. They are ignored, exploited and discarded.

The economy cannot run on sheer momentum. Its habitat must be respected as it has its own natural order. China’s Great Famine stemming from a lengthy drought from 1958 to 1960 was not purely a natural disaster. One of major causes was Mao Zedong’s hygiene campaign against the so-called Four Pests. Sparrows were included because they ate grain seeds. Sparrows were killed and nests torn down to such an extent of that it led to a near-extinction of the birds in China.

However, rice yields substantially decreased instead of increasing because then locust population ballooned from absence of their predators — sparrows. Together with other problems from the Great Leap Forward campaign, nearly 40 million people died in just three years. A clampdown disrupting the ecological order can kill a habitat and do lasting damage.

An economy feeds on freedom. Europeans were hostile towards Jews at the time Rome fell except for Venetians. The moneylender in William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” is Jewish. With Jewish financing, Venice flourished and became a trading power. History shows the price that can be paid if the economy loses balance.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 5, Page 32

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Ki-chan