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Labor disputes seen deteriorating: Enactment of laws likely to be held up until 2nd half of next year

By Kim Sung-mi (smkim@heraldm.com), Korea Herald, 1 December 2003

The nation’s labor disputes are expected to intensify next year with rancorous debates over labor issues raging, Korea’s foremost labor expert said yesterday.

The enactment of labor laws, planned for early next year, is likely to be held up until the second half. Parliamentarians are hesitant to put their hands on the matter before the general election in April, said Kim Keum-soo, who chairs the Korea Tripartite Commission, the three-way policy consultation group comprised of labor, management and the government.

As a result, the strife-ridden labor situation in Korea will deteriorate, he said in a news conference.

Currently, talks are under way on new labor regulations at the commission before a final draft is handed to the government for legislation. President Roh Moo-hyun said that a new set of labor reform measures would be submitted to the National Assembly by early next year.

But businesses and labor unions are failing to narrow down their differences. Even among top officials at the Ministry of Labor, opinions vary widely. Also, with local politics in turmoil due to slush fund scandals, the future of new laws looks bleak, he added.

After a summer rash of strikes in the manufacturing and transport sectors, a string of suicides by five union leaders has sparked a fresh bout of union struggle against the government’s labor policies.

Facing increasing labor demands, the ministers of labor, justice and government administration last month vowed to come up with laws within the year to improve working conditions for temporary workers and ensure that unions are protected from damage lawsuits filed by employers.

Proper legislation should be the first step for bringing changes to confrontational labor-management relations. Otherwise, wrangles and intense protest will go on and on, Kim said.

Another concern of the Korea Tripartite Commission is that the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the nation’s second-largest labor group and which is often criticized for being militant, is refusing to take part in the commission’s meetings.

The channel for talks is always wide-open. There can be no excuse for the KCTU’s resort to militant tactics such as massive strikes and belligerent rallies, said Kim Hoon, chief expert advisor at the commission.

I think the KCTU is experiencing a severe identity crisis. The KCTU should ask themselves if they are really entitled to raise their voice as a representative body for a majority of workers, he said.

He added that union membership in Korea is relatively low. In 2002, according to government figures, only 12 percent of the work force was unionized and membership is concentrated in the nation’s largest companies.