Truckers strike won’t be last time Yoon administration comes down hard on workers

Posted on : 2022-12-12 16:44 KST Modified on : 2022-12-12 16:44 KST
Observers are anticipating a deep chill in industrial relations as the government pushes forward with its labor reform plans
A member of the TruckSol union at an inland container depot in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province, wipes away tears after the union decided to end its strike and return to work on Dec. 9. (Yonhap)
A member of the TruckSol union at an inland container depot in Uiwang, Gyeonggi Province, wipes away tears after the union decided to end its strike and return to work on Dec. 9. (Yonhap)

Last Friday marked the end of a 16-day strike by the Cargo Truckers’ Solidarity Division (TruckSol) to demand the expansion of the safe fares minimum pay system. It was a period that showed just what an overwhelming advantage the government holds over labor.

Throughout that strike, the South Korean government’s response was not to attempt to mediate the conflict through dialogue and compromise, but to brandish the weapons of administrative orders and judicial action.

At the start of next year, the government plans to begin a full-scale push of “labor reforms” that include greater working hour flexibility and performance-centered wage systems. Experts are predicting a hard winter for labor-government relations, as the use of orders and pro forma application of the law shut down the possibility of negotiation.

On Monday, the Future Labor Market Research Association was scheduled to issue a recommendation commissioned by the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL), in which it advises the implementation of greater working hour flexibility and a wage system centering on performance and duties. This is expected to mark the start of the administration’s “labor reform” drive.

Over the past four months, the research association has held focused discussions on changes to the working hour and wage systems. It plans to make recommendations to the MOEL on concrete institutional improvements and policy suggestions.

The MOEL is pushing a plan to adopt a monthly management standard for the overtime hour cap, which is currently set at 12 hours per week. If this happens, it is certain to draw objections from the labor world, as it means an increase to the maximum weekly working hours, currently set at 52 hours per week.

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Yoon Suk-yeol pledged to “allow for changes to wage systems based on the consent of the departments and areas affected.” This is another sensitive issue, as it strikes a blow against the worker representation system according to the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act.

The administration plans to use the research association’s recommendation as a basis for moving ahead quickly with National Assembly legislation, changes to government guidelines, and social dialogue by the Economic, Social and Labor Council (ESLC). Other matters expected to stir up major conflict with labor in the new year include the administration’s plans to cut back the public sector workforce and issues related to privatization.

The labor changes that the Yoon administration plans to attempt are rooted in the attitudes revealed in the response to the second TruckSol strike: prioritizing corporations while expressing hostility toward unions and shutting out the umbrella Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

The prevailing view among observers is that the administration is likely to cite the poor economic prospects for 2023 as a basis for continuing to preach the need for “labor reforms” while accusing the current organized labor world of hamstringing those reforms.

Conservative administrations have a long tradition of citing economic crisis as a justification for changing working conditions for the worse. But the Yoon administration also confirmed the usefulness of bashing unions when it succeeded at dramatically turning around a nosedive in its approval ratings over the course of the second TruckSol strike.

Since TruckSol began its strike, the administration has followed up its back-to-work orders with an endless push of investigations by police and the Fair Trade Commission. Compromise and dialogue were not part of the process.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport twice sat down for dialogue with TruckSol but offered no suggestions for a compromise on the safe fares system, oft compared to the minimum wage system, beyond demanding that the strike be called off before anything else.

The dialogue ended without anything of significance, and TruckSol effectively waved the white flag when it ended its strike last Friday.

Meanwhile, polling results from Gallup Korea on Friday showed Yoon’s job performance approval rating up for a third straight week to 33%. The most frequently cited factor among those who rated him positively was his “response to unions” (24%).

For this reason, some are concerned that a harsh chill is in store for industrial relations, as the labor world’s relationship sours with a government emboldened by its victory in quashing the TruckSol strike to pursue more aggressive measures.

“We can expect to see clashes and conflicts with the labor world if the government pushes ahead with labor reforms through this approach of bringing unions to their knees and shutting them up from complaining,” predicted Chung-Ang University professor Lee Byoung-hoon.

Lee Jeong-hee, head of the industrial relations research division at the Korea Labor Institute (KLI), told the Hankyoreh that “if the administration really wants to find a solution to the labor market’s dual structure,” — referring to discrimination in working conditions between regular and irregular workers and between large corporations and subcontracting and small businesses — “they need to play a role in setting the stage by bringing the responsible parties to the negotiating table.”

“If they view the end of this strike as a ‘successful execution’ of their emphasis on ‘law and principles’ without showing any plans for how to protect the workers at the bottom, that’s an outdated attitude,” she added.

The situation also has ample potential to cause friction with international institutions like the International Labour Organization (ILO) and parties like the European Union.

ILO International Labour Standards Department freedom of association branch chief Karen Curtis and other officials are scheduled to meet with administration officials while they visit South Korea to attend a conference organized by the Supreme Court-affiliated Judicial Policy Research Institute, which is scheduled to take place Monday.

“The administration needs to understand that an approach of recognizing the unions and other associations in our society and creating an environment for them to play a role in shaping the market order incurs fewer social costs and is also preferable from a democratic standpoint,” said Park Myung-joon, a senior research fellow at KLI.

By Jeon Jong-hwi, staff reporter; Jang Hyeon-eun, staff reporter

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