The ratio of non-regular workers increased gradually and reached at 36.4% in 2019.
/Information Sources by the Statistics Korea
Many people are having hard time these days because of COVUD-19. Among, some non-regular workers are having even harder times. They are forced to resign or suffering from layoffs without unemplyment benefits. Meanwhile, a security guard’s recent tragic death has revealed security guards’ difficulties such as unfair treatment, employment insecurity and poor working conditions. Almost all security guards are non-regular workers. Therefore, they cannot appeal their complaints to the police or the Ministry of Employment and Labor for fear of being fired. This is why lots of unreasonable incidents have been hidden so far. Not surprisingly, other non-regular workers are also working in poor conditions. As of 2019, the ratio of non-regular workers was about 36 percent. Living in an age of eight-million non-regular workers, we need to know what kinds of unfair treatment they are experiencing and what efforts are required to improve their working conditions.
Who are non-regular workers and why do they have to be non-regular workers
According to Statistics Korea, “Non regular worker” refers to an employee whose main job will terminate either after a period fixed in advance, or not determined in advance. There are generally three types of non-regular workers. First, temporary employees whose contracts can be terminated anytime by the company’s decision. Second, fixed-term employees who work during a certain period of time. Third, non-typical employees such as dispatched workers, service workers, in-house workers and so on.
Meanwhile, some people prefer to be non-regular workers to regular workers. First, some elderly non-regular workers such as security guards and cleaners want to remain as non-regular workers because as regular workers have a fixed retirement age, they can not work longer although they want to. Also, in the case of a office job requiring professional knowledge or technology, they earn as much as they work and can control their working hours. If the working conditions as non-regular workers fit well with their own work style, they do not insist on permanent positions.
Then, why do the companies need non-regular workers? First, they can reduce personnel expenses. For a startup company, it is hard to operate the company with all regular workers because of uncertain growth possibility. Also, it is easy to adjust the workforce to temporarily increased works in accordance with the economic situations.
Existing laws to protect fixed-term workers have loophole
According to the “Act on the protection, etc. of fixed-term and part-time employees,” workers cannot use non-regular workers more than 24 months and if they do, such a fixed-term employee shall be deemed an employee subject to non-fixed term employment contract. However, many non-regular workers have been worried about potential abuse from employers since the enactment of the law. As expected, employers have been abusing this part, such as signing 20-month contracts repeatedly or firing non-regular workers even before they are fully adjusted to working environments and then hiring another worker.
Cho Sung-hae, the Professor of the College of Law, said “As the current law is too strict, it causes reverse effect such as abuse. If the law includes exceptions, it will be more flexible.” There is also a policy that commands a company to rectify discriminatory treatment against non-regular workers. It is most important to be familiar with these systems to be protected in this unfair situation. However, in reality, it is hard for non-regular workers to use these systems while expecting disadvantages.
Many non-regular workers are having difficulties
1) Elderly non-regular workers
Some unethical employers target elderly non-regular workers who are unfamiliar with laws. They make elderly workers write new contracts and then instantly make them write out their resignations.
<Typical example: Security guard>
According to the research by Seoul Labor Center in 2019 regarding the Seoul apartment security guard, more than 90 percent of security guards are hired indirectly through service companies or entrustment companies, which means 90 percent of security guards are non-regular workers. A “security guard” is classified as a “monitoring and supervising worker” which refers to a mentally and physically less stressful job. Therefore, there are no regulations of working hours, day offs and breaks, which makes the problems.
After the increase of minimum wage, some employers expediently increased guards’ break times to reduce personnel expenses. However, most of the guards cannot leave their workplace during breaks or have separated rest areas. Also, security guards do incidental apartments maintenance work such as recycling, parking management and cleaning, which are originally not in their job description. Furthermore, most security guards are old, but they work 24 hours a day every other day, which will have a bad effect on their health. Besides, when the guards have conflicts with residents, they cannot react actively since if the resident complains about them to the apartment management office, they can be fired regardless of contracts. Therefore, it is important not only to punish the perpetrator of recent miserable death of a security guard but also to improve unreasonable working conditions of security guards.
2) Young non-regular workers
Young non-regular workers also receive unfair treatment. What is more, as the unfair situations of non-regular workers have not been improved for a long time, people are getting used to it and some people even have a prejudice that they deserve unfair treatment. In order to testify with the reality of young non-regular workers, the Dongguk Post interviewed Lee (27), a young non-regular worker.
Q. Please introduce yourself and tell me what you did at work. Also, why did you quit your job?
A. I am Lee and I worked as a contract worker for 10 months providing information contents for travel application. After the contract terminated, there were three options which were converting to regular worker, renewing contract or resignation. I resigned because the company’s finances became unstable due to COVID-19. As some of my colleagues were advised to resign, I decided to quit when the company is open for voluntary resignation. Also, I was not certain of renewal of contract due to the company’s financial difficulty.
Q. In principle, non-regular workers who do the same work with regular workers must get paid equally. Did you do the same job as regular workers and get paid equally in reality? Besides, was not there any unjust treatment?
A. There was a wage difference between non-regular workers and regular workers in my company although we do the same work. Also, more annual vacations were given to regular workers. Ordinarily, there was no unjust treatment such as neglect or discrimination. However, if any trouble occurs, some people reprimanded non-regular workers, mentioning the opportunity of transition to regular workers. Especially, when it is time close to contract expiration or performance evaluation, some asked, “Is it okay to work like this although the appraisal is just around the corner?” It sounded like a threat for non-regular workers and I think such comment from an employer was inappropriate even if performance is the important part of appraisal.
Q. There are also people who prefer to be a non-regular worker. What do you think of non-regular workers?
A. There could be difference if non-regular workers do different work from regular workers. However, in my case, as I did the same work with regular workers, wage difference was unfair. Also, uncertainty of transition to regular workers always made me feel uneasy. Many people have prejudice that non-regular workers are not devoted to their companies, or that they do not work well. However, once I actually worked as a non-regular worker, it was just a prejudice. I feel sorry for the discriminatory views since I had attachment and passion to the work as much as regular workers did. As you mentioned, certain people might prefer to be a non-regular worker, but I think experience of working as a non-regular office worker is not helpful to one’s career. Only companies get benefit from hiring non-regular workers in terms of saving various kinds of expenses.
Q. If you have anything else to say, please do.
A. As the current economy is at a difficult time, it seems that the market for regular workers is frozen and many companies look for non-regular workers. However, in the long run, they become unemployed and this is bad not only for the individual but for the economic society. Therefore, although there is wage difference between non-regular and regular workers, at least job security of non-regular workers should be guaranteed.
<Additory example: Dispatched workers>
Meanwhile, there are also different types of difficulties that non-regular workers who work at the field are undergoing. Dispatched workers are working in such dangerous environments that the term “outsourcing danger” was coined. Due to the indifference and irresponsibility of original contractors and subcontractors, countless people have died already.
If one firm (original contractor) “subcontracts” part of its work to another firm (subcontractor), it pays the other firm to do part of the work and employers who are sent by subcontractors are called dispatched workers. If dispatched workers get into an accident while working, the original contractors do not generally take responsibilities and subcontractors are generally not capable of handling industrial accidents. Only non-regular workers are in danger in the present structure. It is even hard to report the risks of the working environment. In the course of delivering the requirements of workers to original contractors, some of them are dropped little by little or ignored from the beginning. Also, some parts of safety education from the original contractors are omitted while being delivered to dispatched workers.
The Trade Union of Non-Regular Workers in Education is giving presentation about unjust discrimination against non-regular workers at school.
/Photo courtesy of the Trade Union of Non-Regular Workers in Education(local chapter of Kyungnam)
Discrimination occuring in workplaces
There are also various cases of discrimination against non-regular workers in workplaces, especially in schools and hospitals. According to the presentation at the “Proof Contest” held by the Trade Union of Non-Regular Workers in Education(local chapter of Kyungnam), several workers including special education staff, elementary sports instructors, therapists, and school lunch workers are being discriminated against. They claimed that the shame and humiliation non-regular workers receive from users are severe although they do the same job as regular workers. The problems of layoffs and wage discrimination remain unresolved, and school closures pose the threat of layoffs to non-regular workers. The current wage of non-regular workers is around 60 percent of regular workers’. Many non-regular workers who work in hospitals are suffering from discrimination as well. Even though the working environment of nurses, including “Nurse Bullying,” has become an issue, poor conditions in hospitals have not been improved yet. As a result of frequent labor supervision on general hospitals, many hospitals were caught to have violated labor-related laws, including unpaid first-time wages and discrimination against non-regular workers. In particular, the problem of overdue wages for workers was serious. The amount of overdue wages reached 6.3 billion won, and all 11 hospitals that were in the investigation were found to have not paid non-regular workers payment for extended work. In other words, non-regular workers doing extended work without additional payment is commonplace in the industry. Moreover, some hospitals pay non-regular workers less than the minimum wage or do not sign a written labor contract that should be made mandatorily for employment contracts between employers and workers.
Current issues of non-regular workers’ labor environments
There are three big issues in the current working environment of non-regular workers. First of all, it is a wage issue. The main tasks related to wages for non-regular workers can be divided into the problem of correcting unreasonable wage discrimination between regular and non-regular workers by applying the principle of equal pay for equal value labor and the problem of improving the low-wage structure of non-regular workers. The current Fixed-Term and Dispatch Act prohibits discrimination against non-regular workers engaged in the same kind of labor in overall working conditions, including wages. Since there is no clear comparison criteria for determining discrimination, the bill has had little effect in rectifying actual wage discrimination. Also, the relative wage discrimination between regular and non-regular workers, as well as the absolute wage level of non-regular workers, is a problem and most of them are currently suffering from low wages that are far short of ensuring a living.
Second, there is a social insurance issue. Still, a considerable number of non-regular workers are virtually excluded from the benefits of social insurance due to employers’ avoidance of duty and workers’ avoidance of contribution. In response, the government has implemented policies to raise the social insurance subscription rate through financial support such as social insurance premium support projects, earned income tax credit and job security funds. However, there is a limit to providing incentives to induce social insurance subscriptions. In the case of ultra-short-term and special-employment workers, legal memberships are given in the national pension or health insurance, but are classified as local subscribers, not worker subscribers. For ultra-short-term workers, industrial insurance is subject to the application of industrial insurance, but employment insurance is applied only if they have worked for more than three months. Similarly, special employment workers are subject to the special provisions of industrial insurance only for some occupations, and employment insurance is fundamentally excluded from their eligibility as workers.
Third, it is a matter of discrimination correction. Currently, non-regular workers in Korea face serious discrimination in the overall application of welfare benefits, including expenses for returning home, physical training, use of restrooms and welfare facilities, and provision of supplies. As this problem has already been mentioned several times in the media, there are frequent cases of anti-human rights discrimination, such as discriminating during paid vacation periods just because they are non-regular workers, separating the spaces they use, such as bathrooms and restrooms, or paying differently for equipment needed for work such as uniforms, personal items boxes, and so on. The current period fixed-term law and dispatch laws specify the rules for supporting discrimination and introduce a system for correcting discrimination, but they do not have any practical effects on improving treatment.
Ways to improve the working environment of non-regular workers and some limitations
To improve the working environment of non-regular workers, the following policy suggestions should be made in the three parts introduced above. First of all, in terms of wages, the government should establish the institutional foundation for realizing the principle of equal pay for equal value labor through the reform of the wage system and the standardization of industries. In addition, the government should prepare economic conditions to address the low-wage structure of non-regular workers by enhancing the solvency of small and medium-sized enterprises and self-employed businesses where most non-regular workers are employed through the improvement of unfair trade practices and joint wage strategies. Professor Cho said, “In terms of wages, the principle of ‘equal value labor equal pay’ should be realized in theory, but there is a gap between law and reality. Since the wages of regular workers are rising recently, regular workers are difficult to dismiss, which causes the lowering of the wages of non-regular workers. Therefore, it is difficult to realize the principle of equal value labor. However, it would be possible only if regular workers put down their vested interests and share them with non-regular workers to narrow the gap between regular and non-regular workers, but it is also not easy to artificially lessen the gap this way in reality.”
For social insurance, according to Professor Cho, “It was designed for workers, but some of the workers such as short-term non-regular workers, who work less than 15 hours a week are excluded from it. Labor-management relations pay half the premiums for the national pension and health insurance, users pay much more for employment insurance, and users pay for the whole industrial accident insurance, so users are burdened with social insurance, which is why they tend not to let non-regular workers sign up for social insurance. Meanwhile, at the same time, non-regular workers tend to avoid social insurance because their salaries are reduced immediately.” She also added, “There is a solution of strengthening supervision on increasing social insurance subscriptions. In addition, we should also pay attention to platform workers and special employment workers who are in blind spots of both social insurance and protection of labor laws because they are not recognized as workers under the Labor Law despite working similarly to regular workers, which has become an issue these days. In other words, these people are not protected by labor laws and are excluded from the social insurance laws as well. So, in the case of these people, the labor law should protect them and force them to subscribe to the social insurance.”
For labor conditions, suggestions that the government should establish a system for reporting on behalf of individual workers and simplify the judging process to enhance the effectiveness of the discrimination correction system more specifically are made these days. “There is a discrimination correction system that allows non-regular workers who are discriminated against to apply to the Labor Relations Commission. However, there are several reasons why non-regular workers are reluctant to do so. The ultimate goal of non-regular workers is to become regular workers, which is why it is difficult to apply for it even if they are discriminated against because they are likely to be disadvantaged by doing so. Another reason is that if you work for a company as a non-regular worker and want to work for a short period of time, you do not necessarily have to make quarrels. In addition, those who cause issues in Korea are wrongly branded and rumored among other companies, so there is nothing good for workers. As such, the system clearly exists, but non-regular workers are reluctant to report for being disadvantaged according to their poor status, and some say that a system should be established to act on behalf of individuals,” added Professor Cho.
Cases of improved working environments for non-regular workers
Efforts to improve the working environment for non-regular workers have been steadily made both domestically and internationally.
One domestic case is a win-win benchmarking case of Seongdong-gu’s “Employment Stability Agreement for Security Workers,” in which the Seongdong-gu Apartment Residents’ Representatives Association and Seongdong-gu, Seoul, signed an “MOU(Memorandum of Understanding)” to co-exist with apartment security guards. The MOU includes ensuring stable employment of security guards, improving working conditions, making efforts to improve apartment management services, and win-win cooperation for the spread of community culture and value sharing. Seongdong-gu is promoting job security funds to reduce job insecurity among security guards in 85 out of 116 apartment complexes.
The Netherlands is often mentioned as an international case of improving the working environment of non-regular workers. It has spread high-quality part-time jobs by guaranteeing workers’ working hours options and dramatically improving the treatment of part-time labor. Since 1990, the proportion of voluntary part-time workers has increased significantly in the Netherlands, resulting in a series of systems that legally guarantee workers’ time options and improves the treatment of part-time workers. The Working Hours Adjustment Act, enacted in 2000, guaranteed workers the right to shorten or extend working hours, and prohibited employers from firing workers. In particular, the bill guarantees not only shorter working hours but also longer working hours, enabling the transition from part-time to full-time rather than just a shift from full-time to part-time.
Expected effects for non-regular workers
In the case of Seongdong-gu District’s “Employment Stability Agreement for Security Workers,” one can find the expected effect of guaranteeing the rights of non-regular workers by improving the treatment of non-regular workers. The improvement in the treatment of non-regular workers will allow the government to come up with effective alternatives to ensure the rights of non-regular workers. They are bound to exist even if the policy of regularizing non-regular workers is implemented. The reason why many people today consider regularization as the only solution to the problem of non-regular workers is because of the widened gap between regular and non-regular workers in wages, social insurance, and labor conditions. If the improvement of treatments for non-regular workers eliminates unreasonable discrimination between regular and non-regular workers and guarantees their working conditions on a par with regular workers, it will become able to guarantee the labor rights of non-regular workers without unilaterally relying only on the policy of regularization. Another expected effect is that improving the treatment of non-regular workers could reduce the economic profit motive for companies’ use of non-regular workers. This will also help prevent and reduce the abuse of non-regular workers.
Professor Cho emphasizes, “Above all, improving the treatment of non-regular workers and narrowing the gap with regular workers will result in countless non-regular workers, who have not been treated humanely so far, being treated as decent human beings and ultimately having the right to pursue happiness.”
However, in addition to the policy improvements for non-regular workers, who are not guaranteed labor rights despite the rapid expansion of non-regular workers, alienated from society’s safety net, and working in poor conditions, improvement in perceptions of non-regular workers on the social and individual level should also follow.
Lee Su-yeon, Kwon Min-jeong firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
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