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New laws will let domestic workers unionize

Jan 01,2018
Domestic workers may be able to unionize and go on strike under a new proposal by the Moon administration. The government is also deliberating on plans to grant them public insurance coverage and paid annual leave.

The Moon administration decided on a proposal to revise laws to improve the hiring of domestic workers at a cabinet meeting Dec. 26. If the proposed legislation is passed during the provisional session of the National Assembly in February, the new changes could be implemented by as early as 2019, after a one-year grace period.

Currently, domestic workers are not protected by any labor laws. These include the Labor Standards Act, Employment Insurance Act, Protection of Fixed-term and Part-time Workers Act and Protection of Temporary Agency Workers Act.

If the new legislation is passed, domestic workers will acquire a range of benefits comparable to those already held by full-time workers in other industries. Besides being granted public insurance coverage, paid annual leave and retirement benefits, they will also gain the power to unionize.

The changes will also obligate workers to go through government-certified recruitment agencies for employment, signing labor contracts with them to qualify for insurance coverage and other benefits. These agencies will be then responsible for paying and dispatching domestic workers to customers who request the services. Customers will pay agencies directly.

Hourly rates for their services are also expected to rise to 12,000 won ($11.16) on average, a 20 percent increase from the current average of 10,000 won.

“We decided to propose the legislation in light of the problems and accidents that rise from informally hiring domestic workers whose rights are not being protected,” cabinet members explained.

But many are skeptical of the proposed arrangement. One of the biggest concerns is that once the changes come into effect, domestic workers would effectively become dispatch workers, defined in Korean laws as workers who sign contracts with “sending” employers and are then dispatched to “using” employers. Currently, domestic work is not included in the list of jobs permitted for dispatch work under the Protection for Dispatched Workers Act.

“The proposed law by the government is strange in that it will be permitting the dispatch of domestic workers, which is a violation of the current Dispatched Workers Act,” said Park Ji-soon, a law professor at Korea University. “Because the nature of their work cannot prevent domestic workers from in effect becoming dispatch workers, it may be a logical move to revise the Dispatch Worker Act.” But a revision to the act is guaranteed to meet considerable opposition from labor circles.

Many employers of domestic workers, as well as experts, are apprehensive about the upcoming changes. “With me and my spouse both working full-time, what are we supposed to do if workers go on strike?” said one 34-year-old surnamed Lee. “Young working couples and stay-at-home moms will be less likely to hire domestic workers as the process of employing them becomes more difficult,” said Cho Joon-mo, an economics professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

Critics are also skeptical as to whether domestic workers, whose working hours are not guaranteed, can be actually protected by labor laws when they only apply to those working over 15 hours a week. To address this problem, the government plans to obligate agencies to arrange for all domestic workers to work over 15 hours a week. Nonetheless, they argue the government is shortsighted for expecting the agencies to be able to find that amount of work for domestic workers, especially when it’s uncertain there will be enough demand for their services.

Some of the domestic workers themselves are not happy about the proposal. “I’m happy that I will get retirement and unemployment benefits,” one 51-year-old woman surnamed Jeong said, “but would anyone want to use our services when the fees are rising and we can form unions?”

BY KIM KI-CHAN AND KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]