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[News Focus] Inside the controversy over Incheon Airport’s hiring plan

Ruling camp blames fake news, but critics see simmering anger of youth for diminishing opportunities

Unionized workers of the Incheon International Airport Corp. protest the company’s plan to directly hire security workers during a press conference near the Blue House in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
Unionized workers of the Incheon International Airport Corp. protest the company’s plan to directly hire security workers during a press conference near the Blue House in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
Controversy over the Incheon International Airport Corp.’s plan to directly hire security workers has spilt over into the political arena, with the main opposition party pinpointing President Moon Jae-in’s “zero irregular job” initiative as the root cause of the problem. 

Public outcry erupted when the state-run airport operator, favored by many job seekers for its job security and benefits, announced plans last week to grant permanent positions to 1,902 contract and part-time security officers.

By 4:40 p.m. Sunday, more than 258,800 people had signed an online petition posted on the website of the presidential office questioning the equality of taking away opportunities from other job seekers. It also claimed the move is a reverse discrimination against existing full-time employees who went through rigorous, open competition to land jobs there.

‘It’s fake news’

The Blue House and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea see fake news and misinformation as playing a big part in the latest controversy. A lot of what has been reported is not true, they say. 

Hwang Deok-soon, senior secretary for jobs to President Moon, said in a radio talk show a day after the petition was filed that it was misinformation. According to him, the planned employment status change of security workers will not affect the company’s annual recruitment of college graduates.

Furthermore, many of the irregular workers will go through a screening process to earn permanent positions, and their salary level will not differ from the current level of around 33 million won, as opposed to the rumored 50 million won. 

Many representatives of the ruling party and its support caucuses added support. Democratic Party Chairman Lee Hae-chan said Friday, “It is clear how much false information can disturb the people from what is seen nowadays.”

Amid efforts to set things straight and soothe the anger of job seekers, however, the controversy took a sharp political turn, with rival politicians exchanging barbs over who’s at fault.  

Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party took aim directly at President Moon, saying abnormality at the airport is due to the state leader, who during his much-publicized visit to the airport in May 2017, his first official schedule since taking office, pledged to grant the permanent employment status to all irregulars at the airport.

“Under this administration, buying an apartment needs the luck to win a lottery and the same goes for landing regular jobs,” he said. “Who’s going to answer to the frustration of millions of young people who have been working so diligently?”

Rep. Kim Doo-kwan of the ruling party fought back, saying opposition lawmakers were taking the issue as an opportunity to attack the Moon administration, without fully understanding how unfair the labor market is for non-regular workers. “Is it fair then those who have attended school for a little longer take home twice as much as those who did not?”

“Is it fair to fire all who have been working as security officers for the past three years and open a new recruitment process?”

Irregulars or non-regulars are workers with short-term, part-time contracts or dispatched by manpower agencies who work for lower wages and with less job security.

Angry 20s

Beneath the controversy lies the simmering anger of those in their 20s who feel deprived of opportunities in life compared to their parent generation, many experts and observers point out. Fairness has been a growing call of younger generations, which established politics have failed to heed, they say.

“It is infuriating. Job seekers have been making efforts to even just land an interview for positions there (Incheon airport),” said Jung, a 27-year-old job seeker in Daejeon.

“The focus should be on providing equal opportunities and level-playing field, not giving a leeway to some particular groups for the jobs that many fight so much for.”

Jung felt the government and ruling party have been unfairly criticizing young job seekers and regular employees at the airport operator by reducing their claims to just “fake news.”

“President Moon must have pushed for the irregular workers’ policy out of good will, but in the process, some people felt left behind and deprived of opportunities,” said Koo Jeong-woo, a sociology professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

“The airport case has touched upon the most sensitive issues for the 20s which are fairness and justice,” he added. 

Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the opposition United Future Party, echoed a similar view.

“Fairness is a belief that young people who work hard get rewarded more than those who work less,” he said on social media.

He criticized the ruling camp’s lack of empathy for those in their 20s who would go for a 200:1 competition for the lowest-ranking government job that pays 23 million won ($19,100) a year.

Giving jobs that pay 35 million won per year to a certain group without open competition is unfair, he stressed.

In criticism of Rep. Kim, he also said the reality faced by young job seekers now is completely different from when Rep. Kim was young. “Don’t add fuel to the anger of 20s in these dog days of summer.”

By Ko Jun-tae (