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310,000 public sector contract workers to become permanent

More than 310,000 contract-based workers in the public sector are set to become permanent staff, the government said Thursday, setting in motion President Moon Jae-in’s key election pledge to stabilize employment.

The plan was approved at a Cabinet meeting presided over by Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon.

The scheme is designed to ease the criteria for full-time contracts to those who are expected to work for two years or longer, for at least nine months each year. Previously, it was eligible for people who had been working in their positions for at least two years and at least 10 months each year, and were to stay for another two years.

The change will affect around 191,000 temporary workers and 120,000 people dispatched from service suppliers serving at 825 government and state-run institutions, the Ministry of Employment and Labor projected. They account for about 17 percent of the entire public sector workforce.

“This is a guideline to give a general direction, and about 400 experts will be dispatched to provide custom-tailored consultations to each entity,” Vice Labor Minister Yi Sung-ki said at a news conference after the meeting.

“As the change could require a substantial amount of costs, we intend to focus on stabilizing employment for now and then move toward improving the employees’ treatment later on. The cooperation with existing workers would also be necessary.” 

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon (third from right) presides over a Cabinet meeting on Thursday in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon (third from right) presides over a Cabinet meeting on Thursday in Seoul. (Yonhap)

The decision is in line with Moon’s initiative to boost quality jobs and employment security amid a widening income gap and skyrocketing youth unemployment. He has vowed to generate some 800,000 permanent public sector positions and encourage the private sector to follow suit with incentives.

In June, the jobless rate for those aged between 15 and 29 hit an 18-year high of 10.5 percent, with 63.8 percent of the total population engaged in economic activities, according to Statistics Korea.

But the Moon administration faces challenges as the transition is likely to entail extra financial burdens, eating away resources that could otherwise be spent on new jobs for the youth.

The ministry did not elaborate on its budgetary impact. Yi said the government has a “broad framework” with regard to funding matters, but it will take shape after finalizing the number of employees that will switch to permanent ones.

Under the plan, agencies are mandated to complete the change for fixed-term employees by the end of this year, and for dispatched ones no later than the due date of their respective contracts. It will be extended to other state-affiliated entities and public enterprises starting next year, and then some private organizations.

Among the exemptions are staff for one-off projects including the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, those who are aged 60 or older, and specialists like sports players. But some senior citizens who have such professions as janitors and security guards may still benefit from the change, as employers are allowed to extend their retirement age up to 65. 

Non-regular workers pose at the Agriculture Ministry building within the Sejong government complex on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Non-regular workers pose at the Agriculture Ministry building within the Sejong government complex on Thursday. (Yonhap)

Short-term teachers and English language instructors are subject to further consultations, for which the government will form a deliberation committee and gather opinions from stakeholders.

The issue has given rise to a rift between temporary school instructors and those who passed the cutthroat national exam. An association of some 46,000 contract teachers expressed regret, arguing they should also be qualified for permanent employment.

As for around 212,000 unlimited-term contract workers, the government will take steps to curb elimination and improve their benefits by adjusting their titles, expanding education and training and refurbishing personal management systems.

Major labor lobbies largely praised the announcement. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions issued a statement, saying it demonstrated the administration’s resolve to become a model employer, though the exception clause may be abused.

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions also welcomed the decision but recommended the government to map out the specific time frame under which each step is intended to be executed.

By Shin Hyon-hee (