“It has been 16 years since the IMF. Now, most of Korea’s hope is not reunification of north and south Korea but a switch from a temporary to a permanent employee.” This is from the opening narration of the drama God of the Workplace that ended last spring with great success. The drama received a lot of attention because it criticized and satirized the dark aspect of Korean society. Moreover, it produced a lot of issues, and you must have heard about at least once if you’re in Korea.
If you enjoyed it, you must have focused on the following scenes. #1) The main characters go to work at the high-storied building in central Seoul with neat suit and a briefcase. #2) They give presentations using their own ideas in a conference room. #3) They are praised by their boss due to their excellent job performance. Do these scenes resemble with your dream work that you imagined before? Maybe most of students will say yes with a look of passion.
However, there are other special scenes that we have to focus on. #1) Temporary employees had to give up their ideas for permanent employees, because they are temporary employees. #2) A temporary employee conceals her pregnancy until she signs a contract extension. #3) An employment contract is canceled even for a tiny mistake by the temp. Some people may say those are too painfully dramatized, but these are the scenes that we really need to pay attention to.
Every March, students full of various dreams entered school and many freshmen begin their campus life imagining their future in a big office. However, what they imagine as their future life is something really exceptional which is allowed only for “permanent employees.” In reality, a majority of youth begin their work after college graduation as temporary employees, being treated as dramatized above. We need to look into the cruel reality of temporary employment, the dark side of our society that has crushed so many college graduates’ dreams.
‘A temporary employee’?
According to a dictionary, the definition of temporary employee is “an employee with a position or job who is expected to leave within a certain period of time.” As such, temporary employment is one unstable job status which cannot be guaranteed or protected. After the IMF crisis of 1997, its percentage has dramatically increased as a solution to unemployment problems. Since then, as layoff and worker dispatch were legalized, employment that demands worker’s sacrifice has become more common.
Currently, the amount of temporary employment is not exactly known as the Ministry of Labor, National Statistical Office, and the organizations in the labor world all use different criteria. However, they commonly state that temporary employment’s increasing speed for the past 6 years is much faster than that of permanent employment. According to official data by the Ministry of Employment and Labor, the number of temporary employees is 5,910,000, equivalent to 33.8% of the whole labor market. However, the labor world opposed these figures saying that the statistic was compiled in a way to reduce the number, and the actual number was 8,540,000, corresponding to 51.9%. It is two times higher than the OECD average of 27%.
The title of Temporary Employee…
Then, why all this criticism of temporary employment, which has already become a remarkable feature in Korea? To put it bluntly, it’s because of their absurdly unfair treatment for what they actually perform at work.
First of all, there is the problem of low wages. According to the report by the National Statistical Office, the average monthly wage of temporary employees for the first quarter of 2013 was 1,412,000 won, showing a severe difference from that of permanent employees, which was 2,530,000 won. Though there is no difference in terms of the work both of them perform---more often than not temporary employees are assigned to do more dangerous work in factories---the wage temporary employees receive is considerably lower.
The second problem is the issue of employment instability. It is the most serious problem that the temporary employees face. According to the figures announced by the National Statistical Office, temporary employees’ average hired period is 2.5 years while average work hours per week is 38.2 hours. It is considerably short compared to that of permanent ones, who work 10 years on average for one company.
But what is more troubling is that their work record tends to be erased by the agency. While temporary employees work under the direction of the company where they are hired, they are actually members of an agency. When the agency, after 5 to 8 years, hands over the business to others or reports the closure of business, the problem occurs. In case the agency changes its name, temporary employees have to make a contract as new recruits, their work experience would not be counted, hence they are always struggling under job insecurity. Moreover, there is always a possibility of contract cancellation despite those employees’ constitutional rights of autonomy such as labor rights. Joining a labor union or any other activity cannot be imagined.
And there is also social discrimination. While the social insurance purchase rate (national pension and health insurance) for permanent employees is 75.4 %, for temporary employee it is only 41.4 %. In addition, in many cases temporary employees do not really get benefit from those insurance plans even though the insurance terms suggest otherwise. It goes the same for overtime pay and retirement allowance. Moreover, the conditions that permanent employees are provided with an employee id card while temporary employees are given a pass is most visually dividing workers into the unequal two groups. It naturally intensifies the problem of inequality within a workplace.
The superficial veneer of non-regular worker protection law
The non-regular worker protection law was established to uphold their rights and was implemented in July, 2007. But, it is called the non-regular worker layoff law because it became a way to suppress them and caused mass dismissals. For instance, if they work over 2 years in one company, they should be converted to permanent employees by law. But the fact is that employers can dismiss them anytime during the 2 years, so it can intensify employment instability. Even the revised law last February does not change anything substantially, only some detailed clauses were added. Now they are deprived of a chance by a law to be hopeful.
Used as a political means
Their sufferings do not end there. The hottest topic in the employment world in the first half of 2013 is the large-scale conversion of temporary employees to permanent ones by major companies. A distribution company “E” first made it happen, announcing that they would convert about one thousand subcontract workers into regular workers. They expected the additional expense to be over 60 billion won, stating the decision was for enhancing the quality of employment.
However, what company would spend more than 60 billion won just for the sake of social contributions? The fact is that it was a mere cover-up for the illegal dispatch of workers, seemingly using the cause of non-regular workers as a defense for management corruption. Nevertheless socially influential major corporates such as “H” and “S” began to follow the strategy of “E” company, and the powerless non-regular workers are at the hands of those Goliaths.
Government’s anachronistic policy
Meanwhile the government recently announced a plan to increase the number of part-time jobs to raise the accession rate up to 70 %. Currently part-time jobs account for 30% of temporary employment and they are in a desperate situation not only in wages but also in working welfare. The government stated that they would refer to the Netherlands’ success case in which the accession rate rose up to 70 % through part-time jobs, but it is highly improbable.
In the Netherlands, part time workers were neither at a disadvantage nor discriminated in legal terms, they were only different from full time workers in terms of working hours. That is, the part time job in Netherlands is something really different from that of Korea, thus it was possible to succeed in the employment reformation. On the other hand, Korea has not established solutions and policies about fundamental recognition of discrimination yet. The biggest problem in the labor world that the government has to come forward and solve is to offer improved treatment for temporary employees up to the degree of permanent employees. However, the approach the government takes only emphasizes that the correct awareness of part time jobs would lead to a better chance of employment, rather evidencing that it does not grasp the issue, only intensifying the controversy.
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Then would it be right to withdraw temporary employment completely? No, not only aren’t there any companies that will use a great amount of personnel expenditure for converting temp to permanent but also we can’t expect national development from the general forms of employment of regular workers. Moreover, there are many problems to be considered, even cross-nationally, related to temporary employment, such as the one between company and worker, the permanent and the temporary, and the internal structure of the enterprise as well as the external situation and conditions. So it can’t be easily solved by the standardized and fixed measures. Then what measures should be taken and into what direction should the issue of non-regular workers proceed, even if it is not a complete solution?
First, an improvement of the institution is needed. What is it that can protect temporary employees best is the non-regular worker protection law. Instead of superficial analysis on their situation and deduction of solutions, taking a perspective on the part of employees and drawing up a bill is the way to go. Furthermore, a labor union should find its rightful place to strengthen the power of unity for non-regular workers’ groups. The structure of a correct labor market allows the temporary employees the basic right to cooperate with one another when it comes to the issues of wage and job insecurity, going up against the employers’ unjust treatment.
Next, the correct awareness is called for. Companies have to reconsider temporary employees not as disposables workers who just fill in time but as a competent workforce contributing to the employer’s strategic management, and devise a plan to utilize them. Permanent employees should also recognize that solidarity is only possible when they put themselves in other people’s shoes, and understand each other’s different situations.
The terms, “permanent employee’ and ‘temporary employee’ are just markers for social convenience. It is true that wages and treatment are decided different for the markers, but they cannot represent the whole person. The most important thing is being evaluated and treated fairly, not by the social markers alone. Now is the time to re-define and re-establish the notion of temporary employees.