The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Policy on irregular workers

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 30, 2011 - 21:50

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The government and the ruling Grand National Party are promoting a plan to convert some 30 percent of nonregular workers in the public sector into indefinite-term employees as part of their efforts to curb the continued growth of irregular workforce.

According to Statistics Korea, the number of irregular workers reached 5.99 million as of August, accounting for 34.2 percent of the nation’s 17.5 million paid workers. The figure represented a 5.4 percent increase or 309,000 workers from a year ago.

Critics say the government’s tally grossly underestimates the actual size of the nonstandard workforce by excluding workers who appear to be on a regular contract but are in fact nonregular workers.

For instance, many workers at Hyundai Motor are officially regular workers of the automaker’s in-house subcontractors. But they are actually Hyundai’s nonregular employees. They do the same work as the carmaker’s regular workers, but are paid only about 70 percent of the wages offered to regular Hyundai employees.

Estimates that include this and other types of precarious workers put the number of actual nonregular workers at 8.3 million, or 47.4 percent of the total workforce.

In September, the Ministry of Employment and Labor outlined a set of measures to put a lid on the growth of nonstandard workers, including those in the public sector.

Currently, 341,000 workers, or 21 percent of the sector’s entire employees, are on a nonpermanent contract. They include 177,000 fixed-term workers, 54,400 part-time employees and about 100,000 indirectly hired workers, including those dispatched by work agencies.

Under the finalized scheme, the government and the ruling GNP plan to switch 97,000 fixed-term workers, who have been in their current job for more than two years, into open-ended term employees next year.

An employee working under an indefinite-term contract cannot be called a regular worker. While he is free from the fear of losing his job after his fixed-term contract expires, he is still subject to discriminatory treatment in pay, promotion and other employment terms.

For this reason, labor organizations expressed disappointment in the government’s plan. They said the government created a new category of workers between regular and irregular.

They further noted that the government’s scheme failed to address a more serious problem ― the rapid rise in indirectly hired workers. Compared with 2006, the number of fixed-term workers fell by some 42,000, while that of dispatched workers and other indirectly hired workers rose by about 35,000. Job security for workers in this category is often worse than that for other irregular employees.

The government’s plan was not welcomed by organizations representing corporate interests either. They were wary that the government might pressure private companies to convert fixed-term workers and employees of in-house subcontractors into regular staff.

They warned that any attempt to push private firms in that direction without first enhancing employment flexibility for regular workers would cause the job market to tighten up.

Aware of the corporate concern, the Ministry of Employment and Labor stopped short of forcing companies to follow its conversion initiative. Instead, it came up with a guideline to reduce discrimination against irregular workers.

Specifically, the guideline calls for equal treatment of regular and nonregular staff in terms of bonus, fringe benefits, access to facilities and entitlement to paid holiday.

Yet the guideline is not compulsory. Companies are advised to follow it voluntarily in cooperation with their labor unions. This leads us to question whether it would be implemented effectively.

Given the magnitude of the problems affecting nonregular workers, remedies cannot come soon enough. In this regard, the government and the ruling party should have taken action earlier.

Corporations might view the GNP’s scheme to offer indefinite-term contracts to some 100,000 public-sector irregular employees as a “populist” move aimed at winning their hearts before the April general elections.

Yet it is high time that they should begin serious efforts to reform their employment practices. Especially, they need to stop using the expedient in-house subcontracting method. They may bring down their labor costs to some degree by cutting corners, but it has downsides, such as worsening economic polarization.

For its part, the government needs to set an example by turning irregular workers in the public sector into regular employees. At the same time, it should step up oversight of the private sector to ensure that corporations follow its new guideline on irregular workers.