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[News Focus] Lawmakers push for bill to protect domestic workers after 10-year wait

Rep. Kang Eun-mi of the progressive minior Justice Party (second from left) and Rep. Lee Soo-jin of the Democratic Party of Korea (center right) call for improved working conditions for domestic workers during a press conference held earlier this month in front of the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul. (Yonhap)
Rep. Kang Eun-mi of the progressive minior Justice Party (second from left) and Rep. Lee Soo-jin of the Democratic Party of Korea (center right) call for improved working conditions for domestic workers during a press conference held earlier this month in front of the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul. (Yonhap)
There is light at the end of the tunnel for domestic workers, as the ruling Democratic Party of Korea hopes to pass a bill this month that would ensure better working conditions for them after a decadelong wait.

Ruling party lawmakers in the National Assembly Environment and Labor Committee are pushing to pass the bill during this month’s provisional session, in keeping with the party’s vow to expand protection for the working class and categorize domestic workers as wage laborers under the law.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Lee Soo-jin of the Democratic Party, would entitle domestic workers to enroll in four social insurance programs -- the National Pension Service, the Employment Insurance System, Korea Workers’ Compensation Insurance and the National Health Insurance Service.

Domestic workers would sign official employment contracts and would also be entitled to receive an unemployment allowance if certain conditions were met. Currently they are categorized as workers under “special contracts” and as such are not protected under the Labor Standards Act or other employment-related laws.

Rep. Kang Eun-mi of the progressive minor Justice Party submitted a separate bill for the provisional session with a similar proposal.

“Up to 600,000 domestic workers are struggling from feeble working conditions and difficulties in maintaining their livelihoods,” Rep. Lee of the Democratic Party said in a press release earlier this month.

“The number of households they work for have sharply fallen due to COVID-19, but many of them are not even receiving emergency employment support funds as they cannot submit their income statements.”

While in past years there were discussions among lawmakers on whether to reclassify domestic workers so they could enjoy the same protection as other workers, related bills failed to pass at the committee level and ended in failure for 10 years.

A group representing domestic workers argues that the parliament must not wait any longer before ending discrimination against workers employed under special contracts, but must extend due protection to them.

The group has also asked for domestic workers to be included under the Moon Jae-in administration’s universal employment insurance system. It has criticized the government for ignoring its members’ well-being even after signing an international convention pledging to improve it.

In 2011 South Korea was one of 396 entities that voted for the International Labor Organization to adopt the Domestic Workers Convention to uphold labor standards for domestic workers.

Since coming into effect in 2013, the convention has been ratified in 31 countries, but Korea has yet to ratify it. The domestic workers’ group demanded that the country ratify the convention and pay more attention to its members’ working conditions.

“The demands of domestic workers’ unions and representative groups since starting the first survey and roundtable talks in 2006 have not changed to date,” the group said in a statement.

“We ask domestic workers to be provided with industrial accident insurance, stable employment security and a joint body of related people for social discussions.”

The general public is also receptive to the bill being approved, a ministry survey showed Tuesday.

Some 94.6 percent of 500 working mothers said they agreed on the need for a law to ensure adequate working conditions for domestic workers, according to a survey by the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

At least 67 percent of those who agreed cited the need for an official reference check for domestic workers, and other proponents expressed hopes for improved services and a structured compensation mechanism under government guidance.

Yet Lee’s legislation faces some roadblocks before it can be officially enacted ahead of the provisional session’s closure by the end of this month. The main opposition People Power Party remains cautious about signing the bill.

Opposition lawmakers are worried that the bill could disrupt the current market system for domestic workers and cause employment insecurity for existing workers, as service firms could seek cheaper replacements if they were obliged to follow official employment rules.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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