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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 6)

All News 07:10 January 06, 2023

Labor Reform
No country can prosper without respecting workers

Presidents usually bless and comfort the nation while calling for growth in the coming year in their New Year's addresses.

However, President Yoon Suk-yeol's nationally televised nine-minute speech on Monday was far from it. Instead, the 1,971-word speech was full of his resolve to reform labor unions and rectify what he deems are social ills.

"The government and businesses should be one," Yoon said in a meeting with business leaders later in the day. He then reiterated his determination to reform labor by establishing the rule of law in the industrial relationship. In another event, Yoon even suggested that labor unions are one of the "evils blocking growth."

Still, the conservative leader should realize that by putting employers ahead of employees, unionized or not, he cannot attain two major goals ― national unity and economic growth. Korea's unionization rate is low, but any possible new labor rules, such the workweek extending beyond the legal limit of 52 hours, will primarily benefit managers at the expense of workers. Longer work usually pulls down productivity, not the other way around.

Yoon seems to have been encouraged ― a little too much ― by the jump in his approval rating after his crackdown on the cargo truckers' strike last year. He reportedly studies the labor policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Welcome to a neoliberal state of the early 1980s, when those leaders tried to crush miners and fire air traffic controllers. Fast-forward some 40 years to today, when U.S. employers are having to provide extra wages and benefits to lure back workers amid the "Great Resignation."

According to presidential aides, Yoon also wants to benchmark Germany and France as successful cases of softening rigid labor markets. However, their leaders did so by painstakingly persuading unionists before attaining a grand social compromise. Germany's wage level is among the top worldwide, and the respect for labor has nurtured experienced workers that no AI or robots can replace. Few people frown at strikers despite the inconvenience in France, and leaders don't imagine forcing them back to work.

Why has the labor union become the target of criticism here?

Some of the reasons are internal, but mostly they are external. Yes, Korea's dual labor market structure between full-time workers and part-timers has led to an income gulf among workers. This situation is partly because some "labor aristocrats" at large companies were bent on keeping their lots, failing to move closer to their less fortunate colleagues. However, a far more significant reason is the tyranny of big businesses that slash costs and snatch hard won technologies in a multilayered exploitative structure.

It is this unfair industrial ecosystem that the government must rectify. However, Yoon's antitrust czar recently vowed to investigate the cargo truckers instead of their employers. Nothing showed the true colors of this pro-business, anti-labor government better than this unprecedented remark by the head of the Fair Trade Commission.

It comes as no surprise then that Yoon is calling for a probe into the accounting books of labor unions. But unions are run by members' fees, and their financial runs are made public. The government has no legal grounds to force their disclosure, although the ongoing situation explains why large umbrella unions should stop receiving government subsidies to protect their identities.

Yoon seems set to follow the economic policies of another conservative leader, Lee Myung-bak, a businessperson-turned-president, whom he recently pardoned. Still, even an ex-labor minister under Lee has of late described Yoon's reform approach as "impatient and disingenuous." Attributing his abortive attempt to the failure to win the cooperation of the union and opposition parties, the veteran administrator called for building social consensus first.

Yoon and his aides need to listen.

Seven months have passed since Yoon took office. Still, he has yet to meet opposition politicians or union leaders for sincere talks. Most of his reform policies require legal revisions. Still, the legislative power lies with the majority opposition party, at least until the general elections of May 29, 2024.

Is Yoon bashing unions to unify his political supporters and blame his opponents for reform failures later? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "yes."

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