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[Editorial] Distorted idea of fairness

Incheon Airport dispute reveals flaws of Moon’s ‘zero nonregular worker initiative’

Incheon International Airport is highly favored by young job seekers for its job security and benefits. But its image has been seriously tainted by the controversial transition of security workers to full-time employees. To add insult to injury, the state-owned enterprise has to serve two presidents.

In all fairness, the underlying cause seems to lie in President Moon Jae-in’s ill-advised policy aimed at eliminating all nonregular workers at state-run companies -- what is known as the “zero nonregular worker initiative.”

For starters, changing job statuses from nonregular to regular, regardless of whether it involves a public or private company, is quite a sensitive and potentially explosive issue. The current turmoil of the country’s otherwise proud airport showcases the depth of the backlash when things go awry regarding nonregular employees.

From Dec. 8, Incheon Airport has supposedly been run by two CEOs: the incumbent Kim Kyung-wook and former head Koo Bon-hwan. Koo began showing up at the company after winning a suit against President Moon over his sudden dismissal, which sparked a wave of political and social disputes.

This strange dual CEO structure is a culmination of President Moon’s visit to the airport two days after he took office in 2017. There, he announced that he would “open an era of zero nonregular workers in the public sector.” After long negotiations, the airport’s management and labor union agreed to set up a subsidiary, and transfer around 10,000 nonregular workers to the new company as regular workers.

But the presidential Blue House reportedly did not see this outcome as befitting the President’s high-profile policy, and changed the plan. As a result, the state-run corporation, which has some 1,400 full-time workers on its payroll, announced a plan to grant permanent positions to 1,902 contract and part-time security officers.

A firestorm of public outcry ensued. Job seekers and some union members claimed the move was unfair, since a number of young people were required to go through a much more grueling screening process to land a permanent position at the state-run enterprise.

As public opinion worsened, the Moon administration abruptly sacked then Incheon Airport President Koo Bon-hwan in September last year. The administration cited Koo’s alleged neglect of his duties in connection with preparations for a typhoon and dismissal of a staff member.

Koo claimed that the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport broke into his company-owned residence as part of its investigation. He sought legal action against his removal, claiming this as a breach of law.

In November this year, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of Koo, dealing a blow to President Moon and the Transport Ministry, which made the apparently questionable move. Instead of issuing an apology, the Moon administration filed an appeal to a higher court.

Now, Koo continues to report to the company, despite not having a pass to enter the headquarters, nor access to the airport’s online network.

The dispute illustrates the flaws of President Moon’s naive, if not reckless, attempt to hurriedly fix the structural problem of the domestic labor market, whose demand for nonregular workers continues to rise.

Allowing companies, both public and private, to select various forms of employment is necessary to help them maintain competitiveness. However, Moon pursued a distorted idea of fair job opportunities, as demonstrated by what happened at Incheon Airport.

Since Moon launched the “zero nonregular worker initiative,” the number of nonregular workers has ballooned by 1.6 million in the past four years. It’s a sad reflection of the deepening disparity between Moon’s idealism and the harsh reality.

By Korea Herald (
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