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[Editorial] No time to fight

Hard-line labor leadership set to increase risks to pandemic-hit economy

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the more militant of the nation’s two major umbrella labor organizations, elected a hard-line figure as its new leader last week.

In a speech after being chosen to lead the group for three years from January, Yang Kyeong-su pledged to “open a new era.” He said the government and the business community must now recognize that a “labor movement founded on fighting has come up.”

Yang, who will be the first KCTU chairman to have worked as a non-regular worker, said he would immediately undertake preparations for a nationwide strike next year, as he vowed during the election campaign.

His remarks herald a move by the country’s largest labor group, which has more than 1 million members, to toughen its already tough position.

In July, the KCTU blocked the adoption of a trilateral deal among the government, management and labor on cooperation in coping with pandemic-caused economic difficulties. Its members later held massive rallies to push for their demands, disregarding social distancing rules put in place to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

President Moon Jae-in’s administration and the liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea have tilted toward labor interests, caving in to pressure particularly from the KCTU, whose members actively supported Moon during the 2017 presidential election.

To their disappointment, this labor-friendly approach has only emboldened the militant labor group to persist with its excessive demands.

The KCTU has recently been at odds with the government and the ruling party over some bills that experts see as necessary to put labor-management relations on a more stable footing. Among them is the proposed extension of the validity period of collective agreements between labor and management. The group is also demanding the reintroduction of a bill that would toughen punishment for companies for serious industrial accidents, amid concerns that the measure would dampen corporate activity.

Yang’s election will harden the uncompromising stance of the KCTU, as he has defined the government and the business community as enemies to fight against rather than partners to cooperate with. This will heighten the labor risks to the country’s economy, even as it is still reeling from prolonged pandemic-caused difficulties.

It is further worrisome that the labor group is becoming politicized. Yang has called on KCTU’s members to join forces to ensure that labor rights sway the presidential election in 2022.

It is no time for labor to become more combative toward the government and management. Instead, to help the country surmount the coronavirus crisis and prepare for the post-pandemic era, the KCTU should refrain from intensifying labor strife. Its new leader’s bellicose rhetoric sounds hollow and irresponsible at a time when all of us are enduring hardship and inconvenience in a collective effort to bring the pandemic under control.

If the KCTU sticks to its unreasonable demands, it will alienate the public. Furthermore, the blind pursuit of a hard-line approach will cause its more moderate members to distance themselves from the new leadership.

A recent study by a local economic research institute merits greater attention from administration officials, ruling party lawmakers and ordinary workers.

It shows that the average annual number of lost working days per 1,000 waged workers in South Korea for the 2008-2018 period reached 41.8, compared with only 6.7 in the US, 4.3 in Germany and a mere 0.2 in Japan. The proportion of unionized workers in the country, which averaged 10.4 percent during the cited period, was far below those in other major economies. This suggests Korea’s labor movement has been swayed by a relatively small group of hard-line employees. The Moon government’s pro-labor policies have seen a rise in the proportion of unionized workers in recent years.

In a report released last year by the World Economic Forum, Korea ranked 130th among 141 nations surveyed in terms of labor-management cooperation and 97th in labor market flexibility. The Moon government’s move to allow dismissed employees to rejoin unions, and its rigid approach to the shortened workweek system, will further exacerbate the situation.

The Moon administration and ruling party legislators need to think about why the country’s backward labor system has not changed. They should not let militant labor activists undermine the country’s future competitiveness, though they constitute a key part of their political base.