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Both employers, employees unsatisfied with new industrial accident law

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Lawmakers attend a plenary session at the National Assembly on Yeouido, Seoul, Friday. They later voted to pass a bill aimed at preventing deadly industrial accidents. Yonhap
Lawmakers attend a plenary session at the National Assembly on Yeouido, Seoul, Friday. They later voted to pass a bill aimed at preventing deadly industrial accidents. Yonhap

By Yi Whan-woo

Both business owners and their employees have expressed dissatisfaction with a new law aimed at preventing serious accidents at workplaces that imposes tougher punishments on company managers found to be responsible for dangerous breaches of safety requirements.

Initiated by the minor opposition Justice Party, a severe industrial accident law was passed at the National Assembly in a plenary session, Friday.

The law is aimed at preventing serious injury or death at workplaces resulting from a lax implementation of safety measures and is intended to push companies to fundamentally ensure a safer working environment by holding CEOs and business owners responsible for any incident.

It was sought following several fatal industrial accidents resulting from insufficient safety measures, including the death of Kim Yong-gyun, a 24-year-old worker of a subcontractor to Korea Western Power, at a power plant in Taean, South Chungcheong Province, in 2018. Kim's death caught particular media attention as he had participated in a social media challenge to promote the need for safer working conditions before he was killed in a workplace accident caused by failures to follow safety measures.

Under the new law, business owners and CEOs can face at least one year in jail or a fine of up to 1 billion won ($911,000) if they are found to have been negligent in enforcing safety measures when a deadly workplace accident occurred. Corporate entities or institutions, if held responsible, can also be fined up to 5 billion won.

The new measures are more severe than those of an existing law that has been criticized as being "sloppy," because usually only low-ranking corporate officials were punished for "severe accidents" or the death of a worker.

Nevertheless, the new law provoked an outcry from business owners and a coalition representing workers.

In a statement, the Korean Enterprises Federation (KEF) called the law "politically motivated" and said that business owners' voices were ignored from the beginning when the draft bill was proposed and again when it underwent a parliamentary revision.

"The level of the punishment is excessive, and there is no clause on immunity from responsibility even when the CEO fulfills all required duties," the KEF said.

A coalition of 14 groups representing small and mid-sized companies also said company owners would have to worry about being labelled criminals at any time because small firms do not have the money that large firms have to invest in safety measures.

The Justice Party and unions are not satisfied, either.

They argue that many of the initial stipulations had been excluded while undergoing discussions led by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and the main opposition People Power Party (PPP).

The law exempts companies from punishment if they have fewer than five workers or have a workplace less than 1,000 square meters in size.

However, according to the Justice Party and umbrella unions, small businesses with fewer than five workers account for nearly 80 percent of all business entities nationwide, and slightly more than 20 percent of all workplace deaths in 2019 took place at such small companies.

They also said businesses with a workplace larger than 1,000 square meters only account for 2.51 percent of the total.

This means most businesses will be excluded from punishment, and the law therefore will hinder efforts to curb work-related accidents and deaths, according to the Justice Party.

"The law has been diluted from what was originally proposed. Businesses of all sizes should be subject to the legislation, particularly small companies," Justice Party spokeswoman Jeong Ho-in said.

The party also denounced the law for dropping several other hardline stipulations and softening the initial proposals, such as lowering the minimum jail term from two years to one year and introducing a three-year grace period for companies with fewer than 50 employees after the law goes into effect.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the two major umbrella unions, viewed the level of punishment as "only a slap on the wrist."

"We highly doubt whether the Assembly and the government have any determination to root out serious workplace accidents," the union said in a statement. "The law omits key elements and turned out to be a tattered document. This is not a law for punishment but for exemption."

Yi Whan-woo


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