Have you heard of an underwater welding operator? Let’s say there’s an oil tanker that travels from the Middle East to Korea. Its month-long journey would easily make big and small scratches or even serious cracks to the body. To repair the vessel in advance and thereby prevent an accident such as an oil spill, underwater welding operators, many of whom had served in the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), step in. Equipped with a specialized skill called underwater welding, they are known to receive a daily pay equivalent to a combined monthly salary of four or five workers, as the job requires one to take risks and have highly specialized technique.
It’s thanks to such skilled technicians who ensure safety of facilities and equipment that the country’s industries function.
Another example can be found at chemical plants. Oil refining and petrochemical companies in the Yeosu Industrial Complex, South Jeolla Province, halt the operation of the plants for around two months, once in three to four years, to go through an extensive check for the facilities. They check whether any of their pipes are cracked, conduct plumbing and welding works as needed, and inspect electrical equipment.
This overhaul needs to be completed by a pool of experts within a set period. A day of delay in the resumption of operation would incur a loss of billions to tens of billions of won. Thus, technicians often work far into the night or even the small hours. Usually working for subcontractors of conglomerates, they work at one plant for around two months from spring to late fall, and move on to another plant. Winter is break time for them.
However, they may not be able to continue their working style starting from this year. A grace period for the 52-hour work week system is nearing its end, but the application period for the flexible work hours system has been expanded from three months to only six months. The period of one year would have given companies more time to adjust working hours of employees and abide by the law, but representatives from labor and management agreed to six months. Even this deal needs to be passed at the National Assembly before it takes effect.
This is more than a type of labor issue. One subcontractor in the Yeosu Industrial Complex, which has been in charge of a conglomerate’s overhaul for over a decade, said that the repair work alone used to earn it more than 20 billion won a year. However, for the company to maintain the same level of revenue within the law going forward, it should hire more employees, which isn’t easy as it sounds because of a limited pool of experts and the firm’s finance. For that reason, many companies end up hiring inexperienced laborers or part-timers.
This may not be the only but clearly one of the factors behind an increasing number of tragic industrial accidents in the country.
Staying accident-free is the number one principle for most companies, because obviously, safety accidents can claim workers’ precious life. Companies also have too much to lose in case of an industrial accident, one thing being forced by regional labor administration to stop production. Many large companies, therefore, let subcontractors have rights to suspend work at the site so that they can address issues themselves in a quick manner, not having to waste time to report.
In every respect, it is hardly understandable that the application period for the flexible work hours system of one year was not even up for discussion.