New criteria have been drawn up for the time-off plan for exemption of paid working hours introduced by a new law on unions and labor. The screening committee for the working hour exemption with members from two major unions and a public interest committee of business groups have set 11 levels of exemption limits from 1,000 to 48,000 hours depending on the number of union members. Only 0.5 to 24 full-time union members (18 from July 2012) are allowed under the new system.
The Labor Ministry will send notices on the time-off limit this month based on the screening committees vote and the National Assemblys view, and implement the limit from July. The ban on paying wages to full-time labor members was included in union law in 1997, but implementation was postponed three times over the past 13 years because of political compromise. Though labor and management need to revise collective agreements after the implementation of the new system, the guidance period should be as short as possible to make sure the system takes effect. The ministry should sufficiently guide and supervise labor and management on the collective agreement revision to prevent them from carving out provisions that undermine the very purpose of the time-off program.
After taking root, the time-off program is expected to slash the excessive number of full-time union members. For example, Hyundai Motor, the largest employer in Korea with 45,000 union members, has 220 full-time unionists, including those dispatched from its parent organization. This is well above the 90 as specified in the collective agreement. The Hyundai Motor branch of the Korean Metal Workers Union can only have up to 24 full-timers from July. Even if the union pays part of the full-timers wage and save working hours that can be exempt, only 48 full-timers can be allowed. This means 80 percent of full-timers, or 170 workers, need to return to their workplace.
According to the Korea Labor Institute, the number of union members per full-time union member dropped from 183 in 1983 to 149 in 2008, but the figure is still three to 10 times that of the U.S., Japan and the European Union. The high number of full-time unionists is attributable to militant unions bent on securing as many full-time members as possible. The overflowing number of full-timers leaves workplaces and makes demonstration sites their home. Many of them even participated in militant political struggles that usually did not represent the interests of the union. Some asked the company for undue privileges and illegally meddled in hiring. The past practice of paying wages to full-time unionists granted unjustifiable privileges to labor activists who demonstrate for living.
The practice of unions paying for their own operations is an international standard. If the same principle is applied to Korean unions, they must undergo restructuring. According to a survey on Hyundai Motor union members, 86.2 percent said change is needed to improve confrontational labor-management relations. The union leadership with a military inclination and heavy political motivation has lost the hearts of many union members. The time-off program should be an opportunity to resolve the long-standing practice that hinders wholesome labor-management relations.