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[Editorial] Nonregular workers

Remedying discrimination against nonregular workers has emerged as a burning issue as political parties are competing to win their hearts and minds to ensure victory in next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections.

Irregular workers are a political force to be reckoned with. As of March, they accounted for 5.77 million or 33.8 percent of the nation’s 17.06 million paid workers. When daily workers at construction sites are included, the figure increases to 8.6 million, exceeding half of the total.

Wage discrimination against nonstandard employees has worsened. Their monthly wage averaged 1.36 million won in March, a mere 57 percent of the 2.37 million won for regular workers. In 2004, the ratio was 65 percent.

The main opposition Democratic Party announced Thursday that it would reduce the proportion of the nonregular workforce from the present 50 percent of the entire paid workers to 30 percent by 2017, while raising their remuneration level to 80 percent of that for regular employees.

It also pledged to legislate the equal pay for equal work principle, promote the conversion of nonregular employees in the public sector to regular staff, provide conversion subsidies to private companies, and offer tax credits to firms that directly hire dispatched workers and in-house subcontract workers.

The ruling Grand National Party has also been working on measures to redress the disadvantages faced by irregular employees. Under pressure from the GNP, Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Chae-pil promised Thursday to come up with a comprehensive package for disadvantaged workers in August.

It is welcome news that politicians have rolled up their sleeves to improve the treatment of nonregular employees. There obviously is room for corporations to reduce the size of their irregular workforce or improve the terms of contract for them. But the political parties need to take care not to impose too much pressure on corporations because doing so could backfire.

Korean companies have been hiring nonregular workers as a means of maintaining labor market flexibility. If they are forced to change their current recruitment practices all of a sudden, they may either have to relocate their production facilities abroad or demand that the job security of regular workers be weakened so that they can manage their workforce more flexibly in response to changing market conditions.

The crux of the matter is the excessive job security for regular workers. But regular workers would never tolerate any weakening of their job security, given the difficulties they face in finding new jobs. To win concessions from regular workers, the government needs to make unemployment benefits more attractive and improve its job placement services for the unemployed. But these changes will take time.
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