Lack of coordination
Labor reform should be based on social consensus
President Yoon Suk-yeol cannot avoid criticism for causing controversy over his government's decision-making process on the flexible application of the 52-hour workweek system. Controversy erupted last Friday, one day after Labor Minister Lee Jeong-sik announced a policy direction to make the rigid workweek more flexible as part of labor reforms.
Yoon created confusion by saying that his administration has yet to decide on how to change the workweek. His remark implied that Minister Lee had announced the policy direction Thursday without reporting to him. If that is the case, there seemed to have been a lack of policy consultations or coordination between the ministry and the presidential office.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor told a different story. It argued that ministry officials informed the presidential office in advance of the envisaged revision to the workweek. The ministry also maintained that President Yoon mistakenly took the policy direction for a final decision. Then it added that the financial decision will be made by the end of October.
However, it is still unclear who told the truth and who lied. What is certain is that there should be no such dispute between the presidential office and government ministries. If the president retracts any policy directions or decisions announced by Cabinet members, he will only end up undermining the government's decision-making process and losing the public's trust.
That's why the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and other opposition parties have lambasted the Yoon administration for its poor governance structure. The government should not try to justify its mistake by giving lame excuses. It must figure out what went wrong with its policy-making process in order to prevent further problems. Otherwise, any government policies and decisions will fall apart at the seams.
A more serious problem is that the government is pushing for three major reforms regarding labor, pension and education without building social consensus. Businesses are calling for the flexible application of the 52-hour workweek, but workers are against it. When Minister Lee announced a more flexible workweek policy, the country's two major umbrella unions denounced it as a move to force employees to work longer hours.
The government is seeking to change the system so that the maximum legal working hours can be calculated by month, not week. Such a change seems necessary to promote labor flexibility, considering the expansion of the gig economy amid rapid digitalization and mushrooming online platform businesses. But if a flexible system is in place, it could shake the 52-hour workweek formula which was adopted in 2018 to prevent businesses from exploiting workers.
Pension and education reforms are also contentious issues. So the presidential office and government ministries should work out detailed and sophisticated measures through close consultations and coordination. They should also listen carefully to different voices of our society before making decisions. The policy-making process should be transparent based on social consensus. Otherwise, it will only escalate social conflicts.
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