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‘Hasty Gov’t Intervention Worsens Labor Ties’

Posted February. 13, 2008 07:37,   


“Whenever a new administration takes office, unions attempt to test it and shake it.”

“The government has avoided confrontation with unions over the past decade. This is tantamount to giving up its responsibility.”

These are excerpts from Korea Employers’ Federation Chairman Lee Soo-young in his exclusive interview with The Dong-A Ilbo Monday. He gave his candid views in his first media interview since the presidential election in December last year, focusing on obstacles to national competitiveness such as government regulations and labor-management strife.

The federation is a national organization representing management and defending the interests of employers.

“The incumbent administration’s hasty intervention raised union expectations,” Lee said. “This created a vicious cycle of illegal strikes. The government cannot revive the economy by siding with a certain group or class.”

Prior to the interview, Lee prepared documents necessary to answer questions. He also contemplated each question with a serious look throughout the interview.

Q: The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has declared a hard-line stance ahead of the inauguration of the “business-friendly” administration. What is your view on this?

Lee: Whenever a new administration takes office, unions attempt to test and shake it. This time, they say they will cut off electricity and gas. This is undoubtedly against the law. It must be resolved in accordance with the law and principles.

[Lee then sighed over the news that the confederation’s leaders flew to Washington to protest against the bilateral free trade agreement.]

Q: What is your assessment of the Korean labor movement?

Lee: It is at a turning point. Workers are tired of a combative labor movement. They should seek alternatives, but certain organizations such as the KCTU are shouting radical slogans. Rather, they are going backwards. This proves that (aggressive unions) are feeling a sense of a crisis. They should change the paradigm of the labor movement. I don’t think they have found a solution yet. Everyone should join hands to find a solution at this transitional time.

Q: Is there a solution?

(After long contemplation) It will take time to solve the problem. We have no choice but to let the situation work out on its own. Nevertheless, the people are demanding a change and the majority of union members are willing to oblige to a certain degree. I would say we are in a phase where we study the means of bringing a change. There will be eventually no other choice except for dialogue and compromise, a model that the Federation of Korean Trade Unions is pursuing.

Q: What is your assessment of the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s labor policies?

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder revived the German economy, which had been called “the sick man of Europe,” by introducing the Agenda 2010 economic reform program in 2003. This made it easy to hire or lay off workers. [In Korea], however, the government has avoided confrontation with unions. This is tantamount to giving up its responsibility. The government should find a common ground beneficial to everyone, including businesses and workers as well as the national economy. This is a principle of democracy. The government cannot revive the economy by siding with a certain group or class.”

Q: Strengthening national competitiveness has become a hot topic. As a businessman, what do you think is a good solution?

When people who pursue an egalitarian society or a better life think more dynamically and act more actively, they become the driving force of national development. However, there is a precondition to this. They must not harm others. The law should protect individual creativity and efforts. So far, the government has turned a blind eye to those harming others and restrained individual creativity and efforts with regulations. Moreover, the government has been lenient to lawbreakers, discouraging people from living an honest life. The ultimate solution is to create a fair and rational society. Everyone has shouted the need for a better life, but they have all ended up living a worse life because they have ignored law and order.

[Lee said a soccer match is a good example illustrating the importance of deregulation.]

Say ten referees are on a soccer field. Each referee has an individual role and continually stops the game by blowing the whistle. Competitiveness is gained when players run around the field and joyfully kick the ball while respecting fair competition. But when there are too many referees, they cannot play a game. Because of the government’s excessive interference, the people have become more confused and reluctant to participate in productive activities.

Q: What is your view on the claim that deregulation will only benefit conglomerates?

Excessive regulation makes the lives of the middle- and lower-income class more difficult. There are too many places that ordinary citizens have to drop by in their daily lives. In other words, they have to pay indirect taxes too often. Conglomerates have the ability to overcome (excessive) regulation. However, small companies and the working class cannot afford to do so. The people can follow the law when it is simple and concise, but it is too complex now. It is ambiguous and adding confusion.”

Q: How do you feel about temporary workers?

Politicians talk loudly as if the problem can be immediately resolved. However, no matter how loudly they talk, the problem will not be solved. For now, as the National Assembly has passed the temporary worker bill, we should gradually correct its problems while keeping an eye on current law. If businesses exploit the law as soon as it is enforced, we cannot learn a lesson.”

[After finishing the interview, Lee also stressed the importance of employer responsibility.]

Management should pursue transparency and ethics to strengthen (competitiveness). Only then can they win over unions.

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