|Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik speaks during his visit to a company in Incheon, Nov. 24. He held a press conference for foreign journalists in Korea at the Korea Press Center in Seoul, Tuesday, to explain the ministry's roadmap to lower the number of workplace accidents, improve employment for women and foreigners and innovate labor market conditions. Newsis
Minister promises better living conditions for migrant workers
By Ko Dong-hwan
Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik made it clear that the government will not accept demands by striking truckers to permanently offer a basic wage system, saying such an arrangement has not been proven to be effective during the past three years it was implemented.
At a press conference for foreign journalists here on Tuesday, Lee said laborers no longer need to be "unconditionally protected," which was a generally accepted concept until now, but "should take responsibility for themselves as well as look out for the safety of their coworkers."
The minister said the number of accidents have not decreased despite the introduction of the basic wage system ― also known as the minimum freight rate for truckers ― introduced in 2020 for three years to improve working conditions and prevent overloading and sleep deprivation.
"The problem is rather related to the chronic working environment pursued by many Korean laborers: getting an excessive amount of work done in a short period of time. In the case of truckers, they speed, overload their trucks and drive under drowsy states," Lee said during the conference at Korea Press Center in central Seoul.
"Now, the responsibilities shouldn't be solely borne by the truckers and truck operators. Governments and private companies should cooperate to raise awareness of safety across the country's general industries. A culture of safety must be internalized (among the truckers)."
The minister said that it will take time for the high number of accidents among truckers to diminish, because it requires the workers' voluntary recognition of the very concept.
"Regarding this matter, the ministry's foremost policy is not to let the workers die or get hurt at workplaces," he said. "We will change the policies if necessary."
He made the remarks as some 25,000 members of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity, a sub-organization under the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union, have been staging a strike since Nov. 24, demanding the permanent adoption of the basic wage system. The strike has put the brakes on the transport of some of the most urgent goods required by local industries. President Yoon Suk-yeol on Tuesday signed an executive order to get the unionized truckers return to work.
In the meantime, Lee also said that the ministry is working on improving the living conditions of migrant workers. He said that the ministry is trying to enable foreign workers to check where they will reside before coming to Korea so that they will not be stuck living in miserable conditions, such as vinyl houses or shipping containers.
"The current work permit system in our country basically guarantees no discrimination against foreigners and a transparent employment system using state agencies," the minister said. "At the Cabinet meeting earlier today, President Yoon reminded me of taking special care of migrant workers."
Kim Eun-chul, the chief of the International Cooperation Bureau under the ministry's Planning and Coordination Office, said at the press conference that ministry officials, including Lee, will make unannounced visits to workplaces where migrant workers are employed to check their living conditions. Kim added that employers who provide their foreign employees with sub-quality living spaces will face punishment.
"We're currently not allowing employers offering poor living conditions to hire foreign workers," Kim said. "Every year, we are checking around 3,000 workplaces with foreign workers. The employers who want to hire migrant workers are required to register living quarters for them online so foreigners interested in coming to Korea can check them."