One month before the enforcement of the Serious Accidents Punishment Act (SAPA), businesses are expressing fear over possible consequences. More than half of small and medium sized enterprises (SME) are in despair, saying it is impossible to observe the act, and conglomerates are also in a panic without proper countermeasures. Against this backdrop, the government is bent on pushing ahead with the act, saying they can fix it if a problem arises.
The SAPA, passed by the National Assembly in January, will come into effect from Jan. 27 at workplaces with 50 or more employees. Under the act, a business owner, who failed to ensure occupational safety, will be subject to an imprisonment of at least one year or a criminal fine of up to 1 billion won if a serious accident occurs, such as the case of death of one or more persons or case where two or more persons have become injured or ill and require treatment of over six months. It is a law that punishes business owners by setting a lower limit on criminal punishment, which is rare in the world.
The law, which is unclear as to what obligations business owners must fulfill to avoid punishment, has been criticized from the time it was enacted for violating the principle of legality. The government said it will work to clarify the law by drawing up an enforcement ordinance but it only added to the confusion. It was still unclear whether the target of punishment was the owner of a conglomerate, CEO of an affiliate, or the person in charge of safety and health, and the enforcement ordinance was also ambiguous. It stated safety and health personnel shall perform their duties faithfully as to the obligations that must be fulfilled by business owners.
Since it is impossible to predict what will happen at workplaces, conglomerates are making executive positions such as the head of safety as their cannon fodder, and SMEs are picking a puppet, who will be a scapegoat when accidents occur at workplaces. It is said that the CEO position of a foreign company’s Korean branch is avoided because he would be imprisoned in South Korea if an accident occurs. Even in the public sector, ministers, heads of local governments, and presidents of public enterprises are creating organizations that will serve as their shields in case of an accident. Construction companies are installing surveillance cameras at workplaces to avoid responsibility for accidents caused by workers’ negligence. According to the Korea Federation of SMEs, 53.7 percent of small and medium-sized manufacturers said it is impossible to comply with the obligations.
No company would be against the purpose of the law that aims to protect the life and guarantee the safety of workers. However, a law, which does not clarify how to avoid punishment, will only mass-produce entrepreneurs who will go to jail because they are out of luck, and cannot improve the level of safety at industrial sites. Before it is too late, the government and politicians should listen to the appeals of businesses. If necessary, the government should delay the enforcement of the law by several years, replacing excessive criminal punishment with administrative sanctions, such as fines, and supplementing abstract clauses of the law. By doing so, it should make sure that there should be no business owners, who are unfairly punished.