On September 13, news reports on television and major portal sites read that the labor-business-government tripartite commission has reached a fortuitous agreement on labor reform plans. With 20 million laborers hanging in the balance, the hurriedly heralded headlines on the consensus appeared to be good news at first glance. In fact, the labor union that participated in the tripartite talks, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) has long promised a firm stance against the government’s and businesses’ demands on bringing the labor market overhaul against the workers’ interests. In fact, the FKTU had been fiercely opposing the government’s plan to ease restrictions, for example, for employers to dismiss underperforming workers or change company rules without union approval.
That is exactly why people who had stood by the labor union’s stance had to stand in awe. September’s results on the trilateral committee, to many people’s dismay, allowed not only for firing underperforming workers and changing company rules without union approval to better suit the managers’ taste but also for enabling the employment of internships / part-time workers for as long as four years, instead of the two-year cap in effect today. Moreover, it has been found that FKTU accepted many of the government’s terms, which backs the government’s plans to further implement the wage peak system – the gradual reduction of wages for senior workers in return for continuing employment after they reach a certain age. To the consternation of many, the tripartite committee even vowed efforts to use the money saved from the wage peak system to create jobs for the young, which is strikingly comparable to playing jenga with the salaries of senior workers and of incoming young labor force, illuding the general public that more jobs are created.
Technically, there would be more jobs because employers are scooping the money off senior workers’ baskets to pour into the younger workers. Employers would then be able to hire more workers with more money at hand. What’s more is that they can more easily lay off workers on the grounds of underperformance or just not decide to solicit for any full-time positions and hire only interns or part-time workers – for as long as four hardworking years, whose future guarantees no promotion to a full-time job.
It is numbingly difficult to believe that, for example, Chairperson Yong-mann Park of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry said, “I think labor, management, and government reached a consensus on the need to implement reform steps.” He added that the union and management should be ready to make compromises to reach an agreement.
On the contrary, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the second largest umbrella union, has strongly criticized the actions of the tripartite participant FKTU. Through a rally stage on September 23, the KCTU asserted that there was nothing but compromises in the so-called tripartite agreement, for the reasons stated in the previous paragraphs.
The compromise in disguise as a consensus is not much of a heart attack if one has even the slightest idea of media independence – and the lack of it – in Korea. If anybody’s in the position to influence how the news portrays the result of the tripartite talks, it would be the corporations that hold as much as 20% of the shares of various publications on the television and in print, and not the workers. In fact, one daring feature by Mediatoday claims that corporations are involved as active shareholders in as much as 97% of all national and local print, broadcast, and web media. Many of these publications, which are not named here, have repeatedly reported a one-sided view on the labor reform that has been backed by the government, with headlines suggesting “labor market flexibility” as the only plausible solution to the withering economy.
Only more than halfway through this writing did I realize that a third of a page is too little a space to make politically incorrect, and possibly offensive, allegations about the corporations’ involvement in media, so I would rather have this piece read as an obituary, in grief of the lost autonomy.