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A workaround needed

Dec 19,2019
이미지뷰
Kim Ki-chan
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

How old school it is for Hwang Kyo-ahn — chairman of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) — to recently say that the Moon Jae-in administration’s universal cut of weekly work hours to 52 went too far, demanding more time for people to work. LKP Rep. Min Kyung-wook joined the chorus by saying that people should have the “freedom to work 100 hours per week.”

Reducing work hours is the trend of the age regardless of whether you’re left or right, employers or employees. That’s why it was the key topic of the so-called Sept. 15 labor-management big compromise in 2015. At the time, the Grand National Party — the LKP’s predecessor — heartily welcomed the deal. It is ironic that the LKP is taking issue with the big compromise four years later.

A good way of confronting the issue is to try to eliminate side effects of the rigid 52-hour workweek, not to scrap the policy altogether. The big compromise at the time included several ways for this, such as introducing a flexible work hour system and changing the wage system. But both the LKP and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) rejected these ideas. The government then forced companies to reduce work hours of their employees without caring about the serious side effects. The results are a complete chaos across industries.

Apart from mercurial political parties that always change their stances on issues, what’s wrong with the Korea Enterprises Federation (KEF), which represented employers during the labor-management big compromise negotiations? Why are they not saying anything to politicians who are harming the spirit of the big compromise?

Doing business is like surviving in a jungle. Yet even the wilderness has rules. The Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) had such rules in mind when it brushed off the government’s negotiations to extend the retirement age, because such talks were “too early.” The FKTU was worried about young people struggling to find jobs. That was a reasonable reaction.

In March 2015 — nine months before the conservative Park Geun-hye administration began implementing a policy to extend the retirement age to 60 — the KEF experienced an embarrassing moment with a Japanese delegation. A delegation from the Japan Business Federation — also known as the Keidanren — met officials from the KEF and asked who would run the company if people all left in their 50s. Baffled, the KEF could not even respond. The Keidanren’s questions contained poignant criticism that the KEF failed to take the lead in discouraging people from retiring at a younger age. Having a battle with labor unions is not the solution to everything. It is vital for the KEF to have insight like its Japanese counterpart.

There are many people who criticize the Moon administration for ignoring the corporate sector. Had the government paid better attention to the KEF’s former Vice Chairman Kim Young-bae’s warning that the government’s “zero non-regular workers policy” will only cause side effects, the issue would not have grown as serious as it is today. It is difficult to find such challenging and farsighted spirit in the KEF.

A few days ago, the FKTU and the Korea Federation of Small and Medium-Sized Businesses cooperated to confront the issue of abuse of power at conglomerates. The KEF also should have such attitude. If it remains mum about such high-handed practices from big companies — and shareholders of companies — then it does not have the right to act as a spokesperson of the corporate sector. The KEF must come up with preventative measures, reprimand its member-companies, and ask for their cooperation when the need arises. It should have done the same when Kim Young-kyun, a 24-year-old contract worker, died last year after getting sucked into a coal conveyor belt. (The case ignited a heated public debate on industrial safety.) How would the national economy roll without laborers?

In the beginning of the Moon administration, the KEF and the Federation of Korean Industries — Korea’s major business lobby group — together faced serious risks of demise. The KEF was kicked out of the Employment and Labor Ministry’s Employment Insurance Appeal Committee. That was a case of the Moon administration tyrannizing a powerful national employers’ body. But the KEF did not say a thing. The KEF could return to the appeal committee only after Jeong Kwang-ho — the former secretary general of the FKTU — protested to high-level government officials over the decision and asked how the government was trying to hold social dialogue without a major labor-management partner.

How is the KEF doing now? It is mired in chaos due to a heated internal power struggle. In such circumstances, how can the federation manage to live up to its founding purpose of achieving “industrial peace?”

One can only be treated as a pet if it eats what it is fed, and complains about it. Next year, the KEF will turn 50 years old. It has fulfilled many accomplishments over the half-century. I hope that in the next 50 years, it rediscovers its vital spirit.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 18, Page 30