The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has put a kink in President Moon Jae-in’s plan to form a labor-government partnership by boycotting his first meeting with labor leaders at Cheong Wa Dae. Moon’s authority was undermined as well.
The Moon administration has pushed labor-friendly policies, including ones to push businesses into hiring outsourced workers as regular workers, raise the minimum wage, shorten working hours and repeal guidelines on what constitutes fair dismissal and the changing of employment rules.
It is hardly acceptable for the confederation to blow its first chance to have talks with Moon, even as he has adopted policies favorable to labor without demanding anything in return. The group cited the attendance of the head of the Tripartite Commission of Labor, Management and the Government, as well as Cheong Wa Dae’s selective contacts with its member unions to invite them to the banquet-cum-dialogue. These are clumsy excuses. The KCTU has instead demanded a one-on-one meeting with the government, without the presence of management or the commission.
The group has rejected requests for its return to the three-way dialogue since February 1999 when it bolted from the commission. It has laid down five difficult preconditions, including restoring the status of teachers’ and public servants’ unions, which were stripped of their credentials by the courts.
The KCTU is one of two major union umbrella groups in South Korea, along with the less militant but larger Federation of Korean Trade Unions, but its representation of workers is disconcertingly low. It represented less than 4 percent of all workers in the country in 2015. To top it off, most of its members are unions at large companies, so it is hard to say the group speaks for all laborers.
Nonetheless, it has continued to expand the interests of its member unions through labor disputes. Though it touts itself as a progressive group advocating labor rights, actually it is little different from an extremely conservative force trying to defend its privileges even at the cost of small and medium-size suppliers and consumers.
In addition to labor movements, the KCTU has often joined violent protests against national projects.
It has become all the haughtier for actively participating in the candlelight rallies that led to former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and the consequential snap election of Moon.
Counting on its purported contributions toward Moon’s election win, the labor group went on a “social” general strike in a show of force, pitched tents illegally on sidewalks near Cheong Wa Dae to stage sit-ins and caused traffic chaos with an overnight demonstration downtown.
Nevertheless, President Moon has not uttered an unpleasant word against labor groups since he took office. He gave only his blessing in the “Dialogue with Labor” banquet at Cheong Wa Dae.
His submissive attitude has led KCTU leaders to hold their heads high. The Moon administration walked on eggshells to avoid upsetting them, rather than enforcing the law strictly when they staged protests. Eventually, pussyfooting around the group has encouraged its arrogance and sense of entitlement.
The KCTU has long eroded labor productivity with hard-line actions, giving little or no regard to management situations. It is no coincidence that foreign direct investment in South Korea decreased 36 percent last year, with some South Korean companies leaving the country. A former union leader of Hyundai Motor, whose union belongs to the KCTU, said in a recent interview with local news media, “If I managed the company, I would most likely build plants abroad.”
The economy cannot but wobble if the group is absorbed in its vested interests while ignoring labor problems such as youth unemployment and wage disparity, which are partly attributable to selfish actions of large unions.
Labor reforms are a prerequisite for economic growth. Economic vitality would go down the drain if the nation is swayed by the self-centered KCTU.
The government seeks to create a society where labor is respected, and now is time for labor to consider what to do to reach a social compromise on labor issues.
The first step toward the compromise is to return to the tripartite commission.