Industrial punishment act should be abided by strictly
Suppose you are a homeroom teacher at an elementary school. Some time ago, you warned your students of tougher punishment for bullying. But the bullying did not stop and even increased. What would you do? Strengthen and specify the rule or call the whole thing off?
The Yoon Suk Yeol administration seems to have decided to choose the latter under similar circumstances.
A year has passed since the government enforced a stricter workplace safety law, the Serious Accidents Punishment Act, to reduce fatal industrial accidents.
According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, the number of workers killed by serious accidents totaled 644 last year, down 34 from 2021. However, the comparable death toll at workplaces that employ 50 or more laborers subject to the toughened law increased by eight to 256.
Last week, the ministry said it would operate a task force to "improve" the law. Noting that the results for the first year have revealed the law's "ineffectiveness," officials will reportedly narrow the targets of the punishment ― at least one year in prison or a maximum fine of 1 billion won ($804,000) ― while shifting the focus of the policy "from punishment to self-regulation and prevention."
That was similar to what the businesses have been lobbying for throughout the year.
The Korea Employers Federation and other lobby groups complain that the law is too ambiguous to know who should take ultimate responsibility or to what extent. They also claim that the law's abstract clauses will lead to arbitrary enforcement. However, it is too early to point out the problems because the accumulation of investigations and trials will naturally set precedents and standards. Out of the 644 deaths, only two cases are now on trial, reflecting both a reluctance by authorities to pursue such cases and a lack of experience of related officials.
A recent survey has found 52 percent of 7,500 construction workers see little difference before and after the law. Even when industrial accidents go to trial, workers have few opportunities to explain their situation. "All sides ― bureaucrats, investigators and judges ― take the side of the employers," a victim's family member said. "Nothing has changed since the law was implemented." Experts also point out that excessively long probes and trials might give employers the wrong signal that they "don't need to be afraid of the law."
Korea boasts it is one of the world's top 10 economies. Still, the nation is also called the "Republic of Industrial Disaster." Aside from serious accidents ― deadly on-duty disasters caused by lax workplace safety ― more than 2,000 people are victims of fatal work-related accidents yearly. Not a day passes without workers dying due to crushes, falls, squeezes or collisions.
This is a country that must pray for the repose of its workers every day. At least one or two families, who see off their breadwinners in the morning, fail to see them return home in the evening.
The situation gets even worse under pro-business, growth-oriented and profit-seeking governments.
Encouraged by the recent changes in atmosphere, businesses appear to be getting bolder. Nothing shows this better than their attempt to loosen the rules further. The Serious Accidents Punishment Act defines serious accidents as resulting in one or more deaths. Still, the businesses seek to redefine it as two or more deaths. If the government accepts that, business owners will be free from 97 percent of workplace accident deaths. In a contribution to a vernacular daily, novelist Kim Hun said, "Is one worker's death light, and two deaths heavy?"
A country's advanced level or dignity is determined by how its treats its citizens' deaths, financially and otherwise. Especially for a country like Korea, which has become a G-20 member by encouraging its people to work hard, calling them "industrial warriors."
The government should make the law and its punishment clauses more specific, if not stronger. It must force businesses to invest more in safety facilities and personnel instead of spending money on law firms to skirt the law.