The Korea Herald


Labor market reform talks set to resume

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Aug. 26, 2015 - 21:31

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South Korea’s largest trade union group decided to return to the long-stalled trilateral negotiations among labor, management and government Wednesday, giving a boost to the government’s push for labor market reform. 

Key officials from the Federation of Korean Trade Unions made the decision at a high-level meeting four months after the three-way talks collapsed in early April.

(Yonhap) (Yonhap)

The union officials entrusted Kim Dong-man, head of the FKTU, with the authority to decide when to return to the bargaining table. 

The three-way talks had stalled, with the FKTU walking out of the negotiations in protest of some contentious issues including deregulation of lay-offs and changes to recruitment rules. 

“I will not accept any government plans that make lay-offs easier and enable changes to the recruitment guidelines,” Kim said at the meeting, vowing to reflect the labor bloc’s demands in the decision making process at the three-way dialogue. 

Unionists have maintained that the government‘s proposals for labor market reform would only benefit employers, giving them greater leeway to fire underperforming workers and change company rules in their favor without union approval.

Employment and Labor Minister Lee Ki-kwon welcomed the decision.
“I expect the three-way talks to operate as soon as possible to draw a grand compromise,” he said in a statement. 

The FKTU’s decision came at an executive meeting attended by 52 key union officials a week after a similar meeting broke down in the face of fierce resistance from radical union members. 

Some 100 unionists under the FTKU went as far as to block the meeting from taking place by staging a sit-in, claiming that the return itself could be seen as supporting the government’s plan. 

The union’s decision to return to dialogue came amid mounting pressure from the Labor Ministry that pledged to push for a market revamp without the union if it continued to boycott the negotiations. 

The ruling Saenuri Party also recently urged the union to resume the talks, claiming that it was only protecting the interests of the top 10 percent of salaried workers in Korea, while ignoring the other 90 percent, as well as unemployed youths. 

In preparation for the three-way talks, the government also urged Kim Dae-hwan, head of a tripartite committee of labor, management and government representatives to return to his post. He had offered to resign in April, taking responsibility for the breakdown of the three-way discussions.

The government’s beefed-up efforts to resume the talks come in line with President Park Geun-hye’s campaign for labor market reforms to inject flexibility into what she calls a rigid labor market.

Park put the labor market at the core of structural reforms in the second half of this year, viewing it as key to boosting the nation’s slowing economy and generating jobs for the young. 

The trilateral committee will consist of three representatives from the FKTU, three from business circles, three from the labor-related ministries and six labor experts. 

The FKTU’s return raised fresh hopes for President Park’s reform drive, but the outlook remains bleak due to persistent clashes over the extent of the overhaul between the government and the labor circle. 

Putting aside contentious issues, the committee will likely focus on discussing agreeable items such as reductions of working hours, alleviating the polarization between regular and irregular workers, the scope of wages used to calculate benefits and adoption of the peak wage system. 

In order to facilitate the three-way framework, the labor minister, the heads of the FKTU, the employers’ association and the trilateral committee plan to hold meetings to adjust the schedule of the talks, sources said. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (