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Debate rages over public servants’ role at festivals, events

Nov 07,2017
The employment of public servants at local festivals on weekends and holidays has sparked controversy among public servants, labor unions and local government officials about the very nature of the job.

Even with overtime compensation, some public servants say they would prefer to relax on their days off.

“Are public servants in other towns and neighborhoods participating in the upcoming ginseng festival?” one public servant union member asked on the union’s online forum on Oct. 17. “My joints are aching just thinking about serving food at my age, something I haven’t done since college.”

But others argue that it is their duty to work whenever festivals are held.

“I am astonished by how much things have changed,” said one tradesperson from the Paju region, “when I compare public servants now and public servants before who volunteered and led the city’s festivals, which only take place twice a year, without even being asked.”

Government officials, however, claim there is no coercion involved. “This year, unlike before, we did not force public servants to participate at the festivals,” replied one city official in Paju, Gyeonggi, “and most only signed up to help manage the food stands and guide people with directions.”

Echoing this, one town mayor said, “Saemaul Female Leader’s Association, which was in charge of running the food stands, is a volunteer agency and has also taken part in many small and large regional events. The participants volunteered on their own to work the event and decided amongst themselves to rotate every four hours.”

At the Paju Geumsan Insam (Ginseng) Festival, held on the weekend of Oct. 21 and 22, 13 different groups of the Saemaul Female Leader’s Association, a volunteer agency, from various towns and neighborhoods were in charge of running food stands. Including about 70 public servants tasked with managing food stands during the two days, an estimated 310 employees worked the event.

But civil service labor unions in Paju claim that although they officially requested on Sept. 20 that public servants not be asked to work at local festivals and events, some were pressured to serve at the Ginseng Festival anyway.

“We requested in an official statement that public servants not be made to work during local festivals and events, but the request was ignored,” said Lee Duk-cheon, chairman of a public servants labor union in Paju that was established five months ago with about 800 members. “It is unfair that [public servants] had to not only seek the interests of restaurant owners, but also help install their stands, manage them and stay there until the end.”

“For the past four years since I’ve been a public servant, I had to work the Paju Jangdan Soybean Festival and Paju Ginseng Festival on the weekends every fall,” said a public servant working at the Paju township office.

“Although I wasn’t forced to participate in this year’s festivals, almost everyone at the office participated, so I also felt pressure to work. Because I had to run the food stands for four hours on Sunday, I couldn’t attend church or make any other plans.”

The official added, “I didn’t study and pass that extremely difficult civil service exam just to serve food on weekends. Even though public servants [ranked below level six] receive overtime pay for up to four hours, I’d rather rest on weekends than receive 10,000 won [$9] per hour.”

The city of Chungju in North Chungcheong faced a similar problem while attempting to use public servants on Sept. 15 at the opening ceremony of the 37th National Para Games, a sports festival for people with disabilities.

The city’s Administration and Support Division requested that city hall employees volunteer at the ceremony, and two volunteers from each department, or 300 of the city’s 2,800 public servants, were then enlisted to volunteer.

Members of the Chungju branch of the Korean Government Employees’ Labor Union (KGEU) then went to the Administration and Support Bureau, which oversees the city’s Administration and Support Division, to protest any forced employment of public servants at the ceremony.

As a result, only some of the 300 listed to work actually participated in the event.

The union also went to the office of Lee Seung-hoon, the city governor, and requested that in the future, public servants not be forced to participate in events that are unrelated to their departments.

“Even though the local government agreed to only take volunteers for the event,” said Kim Hyun-ki, a policy director at KGEU’s Chungju branch, “with the exception of workers in departments in charge of the festival, public servants were enlisted in an official capacity, so it was very close to forced participation.”

Kim added, “Although public servants cannot ignore regional festivals, we still need to reform the way in which we get them to participate in these events.”

But Heo Il-hoe, a member of Chungju City Hall’s Administration and Support Division, said, “We only encouraged public servants to volunteer for the event, since we were asked by the organization planning the festival for volunteers to cheer on athletes. We never forced anyone to participate.”

“If public servants are mobilized to participate in local festivals, this might encourage employees to adopt a careless attitude, decreasing the quality of administrative service,” said Eom Tae-seok, professor of political science and public administration at Seowon University. “It is important to create events where residents and public servants volunteer of their own free will.”

BY JEON IK-JIN, KIM MIN-OK AND CHOI JONG-KWON [enational@joongang.co.kr]