Taipei Times (TT): In addition to the risk of being laid off, what other problems do workers around the world face in the current economic circumstances?
Lee Jeong-won: This economic downturn is much more severe [than past recessions]. Many people have compared it to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The economies of many countries, including South Korea and Taiwan, are contracting.
In such circumstances, workers are sure to be affected in ways such as being laid off or having their workload decreased or their wages cut.
It is especially difficult for part-time workers in terms of salary and benefits. Companies are undergoing organizational restructuring and industry upgrades, so workers are also facing the challenge of the ever-changing demands of their jobs.
TT: What are your thoughts on companies using unpaid leave to cut costs?
Lee: We see many companies using unpaid leave in South Korea, too. But for workers, a month’s salary is perhaps the minimum amount they need to survive the month. So this practice has a huge impact on workers. Many labor associations, including the MTU, are opposed to unpaid leave.
So what alternatives are there? If companies are unable to pay workers their full wages, the government should subsidize workers to make up for the income they have lost through unpaid leave.
In some countries, the government subsidizes companies with bailout plans, but I believe the money should go directly to the workers at the very bottom. It’s the workers who are struggling to survive.
The South Korean government gives corporate tax benefits to companies who promise not to lay off employees, but I think that this policy is unacceptable. Any form of labor policy should be carried out only under the condition that workers do not get pay cuts. If companies promise not to lay off workers, but force workers to accept lower wages, this is unacceptable.
Another example of an unacceptable policy is “youth internship programs.” New graduates who have trouble finding a job can find contractor or internship positions through the government program, but workers who find jobs through this program have to accept a 20 percent pay cut.
Government officials praise the policy, saying it will shorten the period of time needed for new graduates to land a job, while lowering the unemployment rate. But the KCTU opposes this policy.
Lee: The unemployment rate is so high; many people are willing to do any kind of job, no matter what the conditions are like. But the KCTU believes that workers should not have to make compromises on their job security and benefits. Workers have the right to good work conditions and we should be the ones to safeguard these rights.
TT: Korea has lower unemployment than other Asian countries, including Taiwan and Japan. Do you think the numbers reflect the true situation?
Lee: The unemployment rate has been rising since last year. However, there is a gap between the government’s official statistics and the actual situation. The government only counts the unemployed, but labor associations take into account those who are underemployed.
If we include these workers, total unemployed would reach 3 million. The government says 820,000 are unemployed, but its statistics do not reflect reality.
TT: What do you mean by underemployment?
Lee: The government’s definition of unemployment is very strict. For example, even if a worker faces work reduction and ends up working only 10 hours a week, he or she is still considered “employed” by government standards.