▲ Demonstrations of Tollgate Workers at the Tollbooth. Provided by NEWS1
Despite Typhoon Lingling lashing South Korea on September 7, tollgate employees and members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions headed to the roof of a tollbooth for the sit-in demonstration. On August 29, the South Korean Supreme Court had ruled that the KEC should directly hire tollgate workers as regular employees. However, the judgement only had legal force on 368 workers, and the KEC decided only to directly hire those workers. Therefore, the tollgate workers said they would keep holding rallies and sit-ins until all 1500 workers become directly employed by the KEC, rather than by subsidiary companies.
The workers were initially employees of the KEC, but after the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the KEC began to gradually transition some of them to non-regular employees. In 2013, the workers sued the KEC, insisting that it was unfair for them to work as non-regular employees. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that tollgate employees were dispatched from the KEC, and therefore, they were to be legally considered regular workers.
The tollgate workers sued the KEC for unfair dismissal, which had occurred on June 1, 15, and July 1. The KEC offered them the chance to become employees of a subsidiary company. Most employees agreed despite feeling it was unfair, but 1500 of the employees filed an unfair dismissal remedy application with the court.
After the judgement, the KEC announced that they would respect the verdict and would directly hire nonregular employees. The president of the KEC, Lee Gang Lae, promised to announce the follow-up measure on September 3; however, he soon delayed it. The tollgate workers continued to protest, upset by the delay, holding a press conference on September 2. In addition to the tollgate labor union’s protests, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions opposed the KEC’s follow-up measure.
According to Yonhap Television News (YTN), the controversy revolves around different interpretations of the contract. The tollgate employees claim that the contract is a worker dispatch contract based on Article 6, Section 2 of the Employment Agency Worker Protection Act. The Act indicates that employers should directly employ dispatched workers if the employees have been working for over two years. However, the KEC insists that the service company independently hired the workers, and thus they do not employ them as dispatched workers.
However, it has recently been confirmed that the tollgate workers followed KEC’s guidelines in their work. The Supreme Court took the employees’ side as a result, stating that the KEC essentially monitored their duties, which meant that the KEC had illegally dispatched the tollgate workers.
According to Professor Ha Jongkang (Labor Academy, Sungkonghoe University), “The incident has not been resolved yet as the KEC did not take any follow-up measures to directly employ all of the 1500 tollgate workers.” The KEC made their decision to employ only 368 workers who had a legal effect after the suit. Professor Ha asserted that the KEC is now delaying any follow-up actions in order to reduce the number of workers that they have to employ as much as possible.
The workers of a subsidiary company are usually retirees of the KEC. The problem is that the current executives of the KEC who decide whether they should directly employ the workers or not are future retirees who would then work in the subsidiary company. The executives do not want to make a decision that disrupts their retirement plans. Professor Ha stressed this point as a key factor behind the KEC avoiding the direct employment of workers.
Professor Ha highlighted the main advantage of hiring non-regular employees, which is the reduction of labor costs. In other words, it is often an economic decision for companies as a way to maximize their profits. The same applies to the tollgate workers. The KEC believes that, if they directly employ tollgate workers, the labor costs would increase. This is the hidden fundamental reason why the KEC has attempted to avoid direct employment. Professor Ha insisted that the KEC can give many excuses to delay or even reject direct employment. Therefore, he suggested that the government should resolve this problem through policy making or by enforcing labor laws.
Professor Ha Jongkang (Labor Academy, Sungkonghoe University). Provided by professor Ha Jongkang
Over 50 percent of South Korean workers are non-regular employees, which is the largest proportion in the world. Due to this, their wages are extremely low compared to the revenue of the companies they work for, which account for a significant portion of the South Korean Gross National Income (GNI). In Australia and European countries, there are a lot of spontaneous non-regular employees but, unlike those countries, non-regular employees in South Korea have an inadequate work environment.
Non-regular employees in South Korea do not have stable employment, meaning they are susceptible to mistreatment by their employers. The tollgate employees face a contract renewal every year, which means they are always in fear of being fired. The employees thus tend to follow all instructions, however unreasonable, because they are in the position where they can be easily fired at any time. Therefore, it is time for the government to work on reforming the unfair employment structure of South Korea. Moreover, because the Supreme Court ruled that the tollgate workers are functionally workers that are directly employed by the KEC, all 1500 tollgate employees should be directly employed.