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[Op-Ed] Unemployed Seem Indifferent to Their Plight

Posted January. 19, 2009 03:04,   


To a worker who lives in constant fear of losing his or her job, labor flexibility that allows employers to hire and fire more easily is probably the least favorite term. It is even difficult to understand the term without being affected. Combine the terms labor flexibility and job security to get “flexicurity,” which was first used in Denmark in 1994. Unemployment is nothing to be afraid of in Denmark, where one in three finds a new job every year. This is thanks to a Danish government program that provides unemployment benefits and training to help the unemployed get new jobs. As a result, unemployment in the European country is around four percent, which is half of France’s despite the global economic downturn.

Experts attribute the success of “flexicurity” to strong unions and relatively stable wages. More importantly, the program works because only those who aggressively look for work or undergo training can receive unemployment benefits. In other words, the system is built on conditioned generosity. A similar approach can be found in the United States, which in 1996 ended “welfare as we know it.” U.S. welfare reform was based on the recognition that once people begin to work even in a menial job like flipping burgers, they get motivated and commit themselves to learning new skills.

In stark contrast, Korea’s unemployment welfare system is based on unconditional generosity. The jobless are not obliged to receive training and can prove that they are looking for work by simply showing the business cards of their interviewers. Last month, only 25.4 percent of 5,228 unemployed people who applied for jobs with the Nambu district office of the Seoul Regional Labor Administration found work. The rest quit within just two months, many of them blaming low salaries and long commutes. Some gave outrageous excuses such as “not enough washstands in the bathroom.” No wonder a source from the district office said, “Some of the unemployed are not really desperate.”

The social security net should be expanded for those losing their jobs. The government should ensure that everyone benefits from the welfare system and receives high quality assistance in job searches and training tailored to their needs. The existing system seems excessively generous, however. An unemployed person can receive unemployment benefits as long as he is legally eligible regardless of his efforts to find and maintain a job he or she secures with government assistance. This is undesirable for both the individual and society. It is especially so given that 90,000 jobs are available nationwide to the unemployed if they are willing to compromise. A successful welfare system is always built on conditioned generosity.

Editorial Writer Kim Soon-deok (yuri@donga.com)