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Opinion

[Editorial] COVID-driven job crisis

Government must try to revive companies, reduce rigidity in labor market

Recent data on the labor market for March raises concerns about massive job losses driven by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Before the outbreak, the Korean employment situation was going downhill under President Moon Jae-in’s administration.

As many as 215,000 midlife career jobs for those in their 30s and 40s, the backbone of the Korean economy, vanished last year alone. It was a terrible consequence of the current government’s income-led growth policy. The government poured money into efforts to create part-time public-sector jobs for seniors, as its policies failed to induce job creation in the private sector.

In a situation where the labor market’s ability to create competitive jobs was weakened, it suffered a severe blow from the coronavirus crisis.

According to the employment situation update by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, unemployment benefit payments hit an all-time high of 898.2 billion won ($738 million) in March, eclipsing the previous high of 781.9 billion won in February.

The number of first-time claimants for unemployment checks reached 156,000 last month. That is as good as a large company with 5,000 employees closing each day.

The figure is up 31,000 from a year earlier. Most of the new applicants lost jobs in the hospitality industry, including lodging, food and beverage services and travel. These business fields are being hit hard by government measures for social distancing to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Recipients of unemployment benefits totaled 608,000 in March, the largest figure since unemployment insurance in Korea began in 1995.

However, these figures do not reflect the situation of the self-employed who are not covered by the unemployment insurance plan, but their situation is serious too.

In a recent survey of its members by the Korea Federation of Micro Enterprise, 16 percent, or 1 in 6 microbusiness owners, said their sales were zero in March. They did not make a single cent at all the whole month. It is shocking.

Considering social welfare costs incurred by unemployment, it is economical to spend money preventing job losses. The best policy to decrease unemployment is to help firms keep people employed.

The point is how. The problem cannot be solved only by hiring subsidies. Fiscal assistance has its limits. The government has focused on fiscal steps such as increasing unemployment benefits and hiring subsidies, as well as creating part-time jobs. These measures are needed, but what’s important is to keep up employment in industries.

People can stay at their jobs only when their firms survive. The government must try to foster conditions for both labor and management to share the burden for the survival of their companies.

The nation’s two labor union umbrella groups on Sunday demanded the National Assembly enact an “absolute ban” on the dismissal of employees for a certain period.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions argue such a ban is needed as a minimum guarantee of employees’ right to live. But they do not take into account the difficulties faced by companies. They are not interested in striking a compromise with companies through mutual concessions.

Many firms fear for their survival due to a failure to secure parts and plummeting demand in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Restructuring has become inevitable. The absolute ban on dismissals will make restructuring impossible, raising the likelihood of bankruptcy.

Companies are struggling to reduce costs by cutting back on working hours and sending employees on temporary leave. These are steps to minimize layoffs. Employees must try what they can, too, to keep companies alive. They need to accept flexible employment measures such as pay cuts and furloughs. What’s the use of demanding a dismissal ban if companies are forced to close?

High-paying, sustainable jobs are created by companies. Fiscal support for employment is needed, but it is no more than a quick fix.

The government must turn its eyes from workers to companies. It must try to reinvigorate them with market-friendly policies, while lessening the labor market rigidity that worsens the employment situation.
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