The labor reform talks that lasted six months is in jeopardy as the union representatives walked out of the tripartite committee with government and employers.
Judging from past experiences, it is hardly surprising that the Federation of Korean Trade Unions unilaterally declared an end to the negotiations.
To be fair, few had expected that the tripartite panel would easily strike a deal like the social compromise forged in the wake of the 1997 Asian foreign exchange crisis. At that time, unions accepted layoffs and instead were given greater labor rights for teachers and government workers.
Nevertheless, the breakdown raises concerns in many respects. A further delay in the labor market reform will hamper economic recovery and further strain the hardships of unemployed youths and part-time, temporary workers. Its failure would darken prospects for the next reform programs ― targeting the public sector, education and the financial industry.
Moreover, heightened labor tension could escalate the “spring struggle” offensive by unionists. Government workers and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, which is more radical than the FKTU, have already called for a general strike April 24 in protest against reform of the civil service pension plans.
Announcing its withdrawal from the talks, the FKTU cited the other two parties’ recalcitrance over almost all key contentious issues ― making layoffs easier, extending employment period for part-time, temporary workers and introducing peak wage system.
Given these are the core elements of the labor market reform, it is incomprehensible that unions rejected all of them. It is ridiculous for a party to talks to reject all the proposals put on the table, discarding the basic negotiation tactic of engaging in some trade-offs and quid pro quo.
What’s more nonsensical is that the FKTU came up with new demands ― such as requiring public enterprises and big companies to set aside at least 5 percent of their payrolls to youths and obliging employment of all workers in the health care and transportation sectors as regular employees.
The union group might have added more demands in order to extract greater concession from the government and employers, but it would only make a compromise more evasive.
Time is running out. The tripartite committee, especially the government side, must persuade the FKTU to come back to the table. If not, as Labor Minister Lee Ki-won said, the committee should draw up reform proposals ― including whatever agreements have been made so far ― and discuss their legislation with the parliament.