The crew members of the Sewol, who deserted their sinking ship without taking any discernible measures to evacuate the passengers, must not escape strong punishment for any reason. Their sheer lack of any sense of duty infuriated the Korean public and media, who have called for the maximum possible legal penalties for their actions in the sinking, which left more than 300 passengers dead or missing, most of them teenagers.
But it needs to be remembered that behind their terrible dereliction of duty are the distorted employment practices pervasive in most Korean companies. More than half of the 29-member crew of the doomed ferry, including the captain and navigators, were low-paid irregular workers hired on short-term contracts.
Realistically speaking, it might have been too much to expect the crew, who had received little safety training on their imprudently refurbished and overloaded ship, to carry out their duties faithfully when the ferry capsized off the southwestern coast on April 16.
In the sorrowful mood after the ferry disaster, major trade unions refrained from holding massive rallies on Labor Day last week, replacing them with somber events to mourn the victims. The tragedy should certainly serve as a painful lesson for all workers ― regular or irregular ― to remind them that their call for enhanced rights should be matched with the faithful fulfillment of professional obligations. But it should also serve as an occasion to reflect on Korea’s polarized employment situation and the problems stemming from it, which have largely gone unaddressed or unnoticed.
According to figures from the national statistics office, the number of irregular workers exceeded 8 million last year, accounting for more than 45 percent of the country’s waged employees. Separate data from the Ministry of Employment and Labor showed the average wage of irregular laborers was about 35 percent lower than regular workers’ average in 2013. About 90 percent of regular workers subscribed to major insurance and pension schemes but the corresponding figure was about 50 percent for irregular employees, who also worked longer hours.
The ferry tragedy has sparked national soul-searching to figure out the ultimate causes of the accident, which range from the lack of safety culture to corruptive links between inspectors and businesses and an economic model that places growth and profits ahead of welfare and adherence to rules. This self-cautioning mood escalated further as a mechanical malfunction caused by a signal failure led to the collision of two subway trains in Seoul last Friday, leaving more than 230 people injured. In this context, more sincere consideration should be given to how to address the problems involving the sharply divided workforce.
What should worry us in particular is that many jobs related to public safety, such as railway maintenance, driving buses and rescue services at national parks, as well as ferry crew, are filled with irregular workers. President Park Geun-hye instructed her Cabinet last week to increase the budget for enhancing safety across the nation. More funds need to be allotted to ensure that public safety work is handled by properly paid regular employees with more expertise and a sense of responsibility.
More efforts should also be made to protect and enhance the safety of irregular workers, who are exposed to a higher risk of industrial accidents as they are often assigned to more dangerous work and lack proper safety equipment. All the victims in recent mishaps involving large workplaces were temporary workers, mainly working for subcontractors.
Without such an endeavor, Korea will continue to have the highest number of fatal industrial accidents, except for Turkey, in the 34-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.