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[Editorial] Balanced acts

Ratifying ILO conventions should come with a level playing field for labor, management

The government plans to submit a motion to the parliament early next month for the ratification of three key International Labor Organization conventions.

In a related move, the Cabinet last week approved bills on revising labor acts, which will be sent to the National Assembly along with the planned ratification motion.

President Moon Jae-in, who presided over last week’s Cabinet meeting, was quoted by his spokesperson as saying “each of the bills is very important” not just in protecting basic labor rights but also in the process of ratifying the ILO conventions.

About a year ago, the Moon administration submitted to the parliament similar labor-related law revisions and the ratification motion for the ILO conventions. The legislative measures were blocked by pro-corporate opposition lawmakers at the time and automatically scrapped with the end of the previous parliament’s four-year term late last month.

On the back of the ruling party’s dominant majority in the new parliament, the Moon administration is now pushing again for the ratification of the ILO conventions. During his 2017 election campaign, Moon vowed to get them ratified during his five-year tenure as part of his labor-friendly pledges.

South Korea joined the UN agency on labor in 1991 but has not ratified four out of its eight core conventions -- No. 87 on the freedom of association, No. 98 on collective bargaining and No. 29 and No. 105 on the abolition of forced labor. The government does not plan to ratify convention No. 105 as its ratification would mean the country’s penal system has to be overhauled beyond amending labor acts. Among others, the National Security Law, which bans South Korean citizens from engaging in activities benefitting North Korea, can be seen as violating this convention that prohibits compulsory labor as punishment for activities involving the expression of political opinions.

Proposed revisions to labor acts approved by the Cabinet would allow workers dismissed or laid off by companies to join labor unions, expand the scope of public servants eligible for union membership and oblige employers to pay wages to full-time union officials.

The local business community is understandably concerned that the ratification of the three ILO conventions would tilt the ground further in favor of workers.

It is reasonable that ILO conventions should be applied based on an agreement between labor and management in individual nations, which have different economic and labor conditions.

Certainly, there is an increasing need to match local labor practices with international standards particularly in keeping with the spread of free trade agreements.

The country has been under mounting pressure particularly from the EU to adopt the key ILO conventions as agreed in their free trade accord that took effect in 2011.

Moon instructed Cabinet members to underline this pressure in requesting legislators to pass the revision bills and ratification motion.

Of the 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 31 have ratified all the eight core ILO conventions.

What should be noted is that those advanced nations in full compliance with ILO standards have ensured a level playing field for labor and management. They allow companies to hire replacement workers when their employees walk out, prohibit workers on strike from occupying workplaces and impose fines, instead of criminal penalties, on employers for violating labor laws.

The local business community has called for introducing such measures as a precondition for adopting additional ILO conventions.

The revised bills barely reflect suggestions by management, except for banning the occupation of workplaces by striking employees. Companies need to be equipped with tools to protect their managerial rights in response to strengthened labor power.

The ratification of the ILO conventions cannot be put off indefinitely, but it should be based on legal and institutional foundations that are not tilted toward either labor or management.

A level playing field is all the more needed at a time when most companies are struggling to keep themselves afloat amid the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Worryingly, the parliament controlled by the liberal ruling party sensitive to labor demands can hardly be expected to take the caution of making labor acts more balanced in the course of deliberating on the government-proposed revisions.

It should be reminded that the lop-sided legislative measures could prove to be the last straw for the already-withering corporate activity.
Korea Herald daum