President Yoon Suk-yeol said in a press conference marking his 100th day in office on Wednesday that it is important to consistently maintain the law and principles regardless of labor or management.
The rule of law must be applied even-handedly, but labor relations are tilted in favor of labor. The government must stop merely watching unlawful labor protests and instead begin to respond sternly to them. Among other revisions, unlawful protesters must be held legally responsible for the damage they cause.
It is questionable if Yoon’s reforms will recede from his initial intention. He said in a press conference that the government could not unilaterally push labor, education and pension reforms. He added that they are a supra-partisan issue to be resolved based on the careful analysis of public opinion. On the presidential campaign trail, he pledged strong labor reform. In an address to the National Assembly in May, he said that if the government cannot reform labor now, the Korean society’s sustainability would be threatened. These comments are some distance from earlier remarks.
Past administrations promised labor reforms too but barely made any progress or, in some cases, aggravated the situation further. Labor reform is never an easy task. Labor and management interests are sharply pitted against each other. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a nationwide labor group that boasts more than a million members, has aggressively resisted any attempts to compromise on the vested interests of its members. The current majority opposition Democratic Party of Korea often takes the side of organized labor. It is not easy to revise related laws.
However, a step toward reform can be taken right now without the National Assembly being involved: responding sternly to unlawful protests.
Unionized lorry owner-drivers employed by a transportation subcontractor of HiteJinro, South Korea‘s biggest soju maker and second-biggest beer company, stormed its headquarters in Seoul last week and occupied the first floor and rooftop. Members of the HiteJinro chapter of the KCTU-affiliated Cargo Truckers Solidarity have been staging a sit-in there. In connection with these protests, the subcontractor reportedly terminated employment contracts with 132 Solidarity members and filed for 2.8 billion won ($2 million) in damages against 12 of them. The protesters have demanded that the subcontractor withdraw the suit, raise freight fees and rehire the fired members.
Some of the protesters brought in flammable paint thinner. They are said to have warned the police not to enter the building. This can be seen as a form of blackmail: threatening self-injury and acts of terrorism that make HiteJinro headquarters employees hostages. They are testing the government’s will to enforce the law.
Their protests began in front of HiteJinro’s soju factories in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, and Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, in early June when they obstructed truck movements to and from the factories. As the court gave an injunction against their protests, they moved to a beer factory in Hongcheon, Gangwon Province, and occupied the only bridge leading to the factory. Early this month, the police dispersed them by force, then they moved to its headquarters.
The KCTU is becoming bolder. Hyundai Steel union members have been occupying the president‘s office at the Dangjin Steelworks Control Center for four months, demanding a special bonus. A small number of KCTU unionists hired by subcontractors of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering once occupied the dock of DSME illegally, causing tremendous losses to the shipbuilder.
The confederation held a large rally around Sungnyemun Gate in Seoul on Aug. 13, then marched toward the presidential office in Yongsan, chanting anti-US slogans such as “No to US-Korea combined military exercises,” “Dissolve the US-Korea alliance,” and “Withdraw US troops from Korea.”
The labor group repeated North Korea’s demands publicly. It was no longer a labor group but threatened the liberal democracy of the country.
The government emphasizes law and order, but it pulls its horns for the KCTU. It is not firm enough on unlawful protests and occupation. Labor cannot be reformed if illegal acts are overlooked. If they are sternly dealt with, the labor reform would be halfway to success.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org