[Herald Interview] 'Time to decide whether to accept the diversification of work'

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Sept 6, 2017 - 20:03
  • Updated : Sept 7, 2017 - 16:34

Nonregular employment may be an inevitable byproduct of modernity and technological innovation, and society must decide whether to accept this form of employment, the chief of the International Labor Organization has said. 

In an interview with a group of reporters Wednesday, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said it may be time for society to decide through social dialogue whether to accept diversified forms of employment.

But in the process, there should be no workers disadvantaged. Society should choose between improving the quality of irregular jobs or just sticking to the old paradigm of permanent jobs, he said. 

"The diversification of work forms tends to disadvantage those working in nonstandard forms,” Ryder said in Seoul, citing part-time workers suffering from disadvantages in salaries, social protection and pensions as an example.

“If irregular workers suffer inferior working conditions and precariousness, we should be acting,” he said. “But that’s not to say all types of diversifications of work forms by definition are bad.”

“A balance has to be struck between the needs so that all workers are given protection and opportunities of decent work. There is no right or wrong in this. People need to come together and find solutions,” he said. “That’s why social dialogue is important in Korea.”

Ryder, who took office in 2012 as the ILO’s chief for a five-year term and was re-elected to head the UN agency until 2022, was in Korea for a four-day visit this week to meet with President Moon Jae-in, the nation’s trade unions and attend a forum on job creation hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The solutions to tackle inequality in the labor market could involve a hike in the minimum wage or an increase in union membership rates, he said.

South Korea raised the minimum wage for 2018 by 16.4 percent from this year, which Ryder called “encouraging.”

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder (Yonhap)

“Only 10 percent of union density (in terms of the level of membership), that is a challenge. I think it is fair to say that trade unions -- they need to have their eyes open and feel a responsibility for the entirety of the labor force,” he said.

Trade unions need to reach out to workers, especially irregular workers and unemployed ones “beyond their membership,” he noted.

The two biggest umbrella labor unions -- the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and Korean Confederation of Trade Unions -- only represented about 10 percent of all Korean workers as of 2016, according to government data. Just 1 in 10 union members are irregular workers.

There have been growing concerns over polarization of the labor market in Korea in which irregular workers face job insecurity and poor working conditions, while their duties are the same as permanent employees.

According to data from the Ministry of Labor and Employment, the number of irregular employees stands at 6.15 million, making up 32 percent of the entire labor force as of June 2016.

The average wage for irregular workers stands at 12,076 won ($10.70) per hour, about 66 percent of that of regular workers. While 98 percent of regular employees are covered under four main social insurance schemes, including health and occupational accident insurances, irregular workers were less likely to be covered.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has strived to root out irregular work in the country, vowing to gradually endow regular status for all irregular workers in the public sector to lay the groundwork for private firms to do the same.

Ryder said he sees an “opportunity” under the Moon administration to see improvements in labor conditions, citing his meeting with Moon that he said was “constructive” and “useful.”

“In the conversation with Moon, the president reiterated his commitment to proceeding ratification of ILO conventions. I offered full support of ILO, technical support and any information we could provide to help the process forward,” he said, referring to two of the core conventions -- the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (No. 87) and Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention (No. 98).

“The reason Korea should ratify these conventions is because they do define human rights at work,” he said. “It is not a difficult job, but a matter of political will.”

His remark comes in line with growing calls for the legal status of South Korea‘s outlawed teachers and public servants unions. Their rights to organize have long been denied by the Labor Ministry because they included terminated workers as members.

He also said that the country’s migrant employment scheme should be re-examined to prevent discrimination against foreign workers in terms of wages and conditions.

“When workers are restricted to an employer, that is a problem,” he said, referring to the Employment Permit System that bans workers from freely changing workplaces without employers’ consent.

Human rights activists have called on the government to discard the EPS, which was introduced to fill low-skilled jobs shunned by locals in the manufacturing, farming and fishing industries, calling it a “modern-day slavery.”

Last month, a Nepalese worker, who had worked at a car parts factory, took his own life allegedly because he was not able to leave or change his workplace despite harsh working conditions, 

By Ock Hyun-ju (