Author: Byoung-Hoon Lee, Chung-Ang University
South Korea’s 2022 presidential race has finally reached its finishing line. The election has rightly been characterised in the media as anomalous — stained by more hatred, aversion and divisions than ever. Amid all the political vitriol: labour is near-invisible in the presidential race.
In the last presidential election, labour policies — including proposals for an increase in minimum wages, a reduction of working hours, job creation and resolution of non-regular labour market issues — were high on the agenda of the major candidates’ policy pledges. President Moon Jae-in, who won the election in May 2017, embraced these platforms as policy goals.
Labour issues — such as high work-related casualty rates, the widening polarisation of the labour market, big blind spots in the labour laws and social security system and the shortage of decent jobs for young people — are still seen publicly as among the most important national social problems. But in light of the public criticism of the failures in Moon’s progressive policies, labour issues have been under-debated in this election, overshadowed by ambitious pledges for economic advancement.
Ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung’s ‘transformative fair growth’ aims to restart the country’s economic growth engine. The Opposition’s People Power Party candidate Yoon Seok-yeol seeks to ‘double potential economic growth’ and conservative minority People’s Party candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, who has now dropped out of the race, pledged to advance South Korea ‘into the top five global economies’. Minority Justice Party candidate Shim Sang-jung is an exception, focusing on labour rather than economic growth in proposing to build a ‘green welfare state’.
While labour policy agendas have received little attention in this election, there is a wide divergence in the policy direction of major candidates. Lee and Shim propose a pro-labour policy to enhance the quality of working life and the protection of workers in precarious jobs, whereas Yoon has a pro-business agenda, pledging to deregulate labour markets and rein in militant unionism.
The specifics of Lee’s and Yoon’s labour policies also diverge. Lee has announced that he will extend the ‘labour respect’ policies of Moon’s government in his own pro-labour agenda. This includes the enactment of a basic law for the protection of worker rights, enhanced coverage of labour security for contractors and self-employed workers, the reduction of working hours to four-and-a-half days a week, and stronger enforcement of labour laws.
Yoon, in contrast, pledges to deregulate working hours and minimum wages, guaranteeing employers more discretion in labour markets, while repairing seniority-based wage schemes and union-dominated industrial relations as key facets of his job-creation policy. Yoon’s labour agenda appears to revive the labour reform policies of former president Park Geun-hye’s conservative government, which promoted making the labour market more flexible though it failed due to vigorous resistance from organised labour groups and opposition parties.
The two national labour organisations have taken different stances toward the presidential race. In February, the moderate Federation of Korean Trade Unions officially determined to back Lee as its policy partner, a commitment disavowed by some of its affiliated unions who supported the conservative candidate, Yoon. This came after the introduction of laws, supported by both major parties, permitting labour executives in the public sector and guaranteeing time off for union officials, civil servants and teachers, as they vied for the Federation’s political support.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, an organisation built upon democratic and militant unionism, tried and failed to build a leftist political coalition to elect a unified progressive candidate, though some of its affiliates have chosen to back Lee.
The 2022 Presidential Election Voter Network — formed by around 100 civil society organisations in November 2021 — launched civil society movements to pressure the major presidential candidates into abolishing social inequality and labour discrimination. This labour-civil coalition has levelled strong criticism at Yoon, who refused to respond to the network’s demands, while supporting toward Lee, who’s expressed support of these objectives.
The outcome of the presidential contest will affect the fortunes of South Korean workers significantly. If Lee wins, there’s likely to be a second season of Moon’s ‘labour respect’ policies. If Yoon wins, policies that favour business and a more flexible labour market are more likely. That could result in violent confrontation with organised labour groups, of the kind experienced under conservative governments after 2008.
Byoung-Hoon Lee is Professor of Sociology at Chung-Ang University, Seoul.
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