With irregular jobs, S. Korea risks another Sewol every day

Posted on : 2014-05-26 16:13 KST Modified on : 2014-05-26 16:13 KST
Risk is created when workers tasked with maintaining safety suffer poor conditions and insecurity

By Jeon Jong-hwi, staff reporter

In the wake of the Sewol tragedy, it was learned that a significant number of the ferry’s crewmembers, as well as the captain, were contract workers, once more illuminating the excessive use of irregular workers in South Korean society. Alongside criticism of the Sewol captain and crewmembers’ irresponsible and unethical behavior, a fundamental question is being raised of whether society is really giving adequate authority and proper treatment to the people who are being entrusted with public safety and well-being. The criticism is being made that, as long as the practice of hiring irregular workers remains prevalent in this society, South Korea will be unable to shed the image of a “dangerous country.”

The percentage of irregular workers in South Korea is disturbingly high, experts say. In Aug. 2013, Kim Yoo-sun, senior researcher at the Korea Labour & Society Institute, analyzed economic activity data provided by Statistics Korea.

Kim’s analysis showed that 45.9%, or 8.37 million, of South Korea’s total 18.24 million workers are irregular, including short-term, hourly, dispatch, contract, special employment, and temporary workers at small businesses. In fact, this figure has dropped from its peak in March 2007, at the end of former president Roh Moo-hyun’s term in office, when 55.8% of South Korea’s workers were irregular.

The lives of these workers, who prop up half of the South Korean economy, are vulnerable. In Kim’s analysis, they earn only about 49.7% of the wages of regular workers.

According to a study of 2013 working conditions for various forms of employment released last month by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, 9.5% of day laborers were enrolled in the national pension plan, down 5.0 percentage points from the previous year. The rate of dispatch workers who are on the rolls of national pension, national health insurance, and employment insurance is falling as well. The union membership rate of irregular workers had also fallen 0.3 percentage points from the previous year to 1.4%.

In order to dodge various regulations in labor laws governing irregular workers, companies are turning to forms of indirect employment, including the subcontract system, which is part of civil law, effectively increasing the number of irregular workers. This is why controversy about illegal dispatching is continuing not only at automobile manufacturers like Hyundai Motor but also after-service providers such as Samsung Electronics Service, SK Broadband, and LG Uplus.

Labor advocates believe that KT’s recent decision to have around 8,000 regular workers ‘voluntarily’ resign was intended to replace those workers with cheaper indirect employees to help KT compete with its rivals.

Not only do companies pay lower wages to irregular workers than to regular workers, but companies can also let employees of this sort go whenever they need to. Though this enables companies to gain a flexible workforce, it comes at the expense of workers’ job security.

While 70 publicly listed affiliates at South Korea’s 10 largest chaebol have been stashing away more than 444 trillion won (US$433.23 billion) in company coffers, two out of ten South Korean workers (21.3%) are getting by as low-income workers, making less than 1.2 million won (US$1,170) a month. 11.4% of workers do not even make the legal minimum wage.

“The current problem of irregular workers can be understood as chaebol exploiting subcontractors, and subcontractors exploiting their employees,” said Yun Ae-rim, law professor at Korea National Open University.

This situation is being aggravated by the public sector. Though public institutions ought to take responsibility for public safety and be a model of good jobs, they are continuing to hire more irregular workers.

According to the Hankyoreh’s analysis of the employment figures for 295 public institutions from 2009 to 2013, accessed on May 25 through Alio, a government website that publishes management information for such companies, the number of irregular workers increased by 15,334 people over those five years, including 5,584 contract workers. This surpassed the 15,077 new regular workers hired during the same period. This is true even when not considering the addition of 9,747 permanent contract workers, who have job security but whose wages are only half those of regular workers.

As more and more workers are forced into low-wage, unstable employment, experts fear the results could undermine the basic fairness of South Korean society and jeopardize public safety with lower-quality labor.

“Companies pursuing a profit also have basic social obligations to uphold,” said Jung Ee-hwan, a professor of labor sociology at Seoul National University of Technology. “Society has the right to demand that companies treat workers properly.”

Jung also said the country’s employment structure was “an extreme case that you don’t find in other OECD countries, in terms of things like employment insecurity, wage inequality, and the percentage of people doing irregular work.”

“This also explains why we’re seeing problems with the safety and quality of the services that companies offer,” he added.

Many experts are saying now is the time to put a new employment structure in place. Labor advocates are calling for stronger regulations requiring the hiring of full-time workers for permanent duties and strictly limiting the grounds on which irregular workers can be used. Its aim is to curb the “runaway train” of irregular employment that has been gaining speed in the 17 years since the foreign exchange crisis of 1997.

In the short term, many are calling for a strategic choice: voting for candidates pledging “good jobs” in the June 4 municipal elections.

“We need to vote in local government heads who will reduce irregular jobs and create good jobs,” said Lee Nam-sin, head of the Korean Contingent Workers’ Center. “It’s a way of working in the provinces and the periphery to pressure the central government into changing its policies.”

Park Jeom-gyu, an executive committee member with the labor group World Without Irregular Jobs, complained that irregular workers were being assigned key duties involving safety and lives, yet their poor working conditions are not improving.

“On the subways - where they’re outsourcing safety duties now - and everywhere else, we’re riding on the Sewol every day,” Park warned.


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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