South Korea warns CEOs with controversial workplace safety law | Technology
Seoul, South Korea – In South Korea, “business as usual” is about to change drastically with the enforcement of legislation that can hold company management, including CEOs, legally liable for workplace accidents.
The Severe Disaster Suppression Law, which went into effect on Thursday, carries penalties of up to a year in prison or 1 billion won ($835,000) in fines for business owners and managers in accident resulting in death or serious injury.
As the law comes into effect, its themes are already making headlines, after the collapse of an apartment building under construction in the southern city of Gwangju earlier this month left several people dead or missing – within months only after another building collapse in the city killed nine people. .
Union rights advocates argue the law is a long-overdue shift of responsibility to business leaders who for decades have operated workplaces, such as factories and construction sites, with harsh working conditions. dangerous jobs while prioritizing their bottom line above their workers.
Business owners insist the law will have a chilling effect on South Korea’s already fragile economy by making companies reluctant to launch new projects while introducing heaps of new red tape.
A major criticism is that the legislation does not specify the grounds on which senior officers are held personally responsible for an accident at work, as CEOs and senior managers are generally not present on construction sites and tend not to supervise physical labor details.
“The significance of the law is that it stipulates management’s responsibility to prevent serious accidents, and its purpose is to draw managers’ attention to safety,” said Kwon Hyuk, a law professor at the Pusan National University, at Al Jazeera.
“The biggest problem is the ambiguity of its provisions. Because it imposes severe penalties, its provisions must be very clear, but they are not.
Another criticism is that small businesses, which account for most jobs in South Korea, lack the capacity to implement systems to ensure strict compliance with the law or to cover any legal fees that may be incurred. .
“My concern is that the tip of the knife is now pointed at small and medium-sized enterprises and the law may be applied arbitrarily,” National University occupational safety expert Jung Jin-woo told Al Jazeera. from Seoul. “The government created an atmosphere of fear and the law firms took the lead.”
In a November survey by the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea, more than half of the 121 companies that responded said the law would make the country less attractive for investment.
The main concerns about the law were ‘the unclear scope and responsibilities of the manager’ and insufficient time to prepare to comply with the law, the survey showed.
“Foreign companies can reduce the size of their business and postpone new investment if their leader is punished by the Serious Disaster Sanctions Act,” the chamber said in a statement.
The Department of Employment and Labor told Al Jazeera the government is consulting with small businesses on how to improve their health and safety systems while providing financial support for accident prevention projects.
“From now on, security is a necessity for economic operators,” the ministry said.
Conflict between workers and management over safety is nothing new in South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy. The country’s history is littered with high-profile accidents that have stoked public outrage and raised questions about the tendency to take shortcuts or rush projects to completion to save money. According to government data, there have been 53 fatalities from workplace accidents in the past five years.
Perhaps the best known is the 1995 collapse of the Sampoong department store in Seoul. More than 500 people died in the collapse of the mall, which was seen as a symbol of South Korea’s growing middle class. A subsequent investigation showed that poor quality building materials and careless management were factors in the disaster.
In 2014, hundreds of high school students died in the sinking of the Sewol ferry, a ship that had undergone a risky renovation to increase the amount of cargo it could carry.
Given this dark history, some union rights advocates argue that the new legislation does not go far enough.
“Need to make companies more uncomfortable”
Jung Jae-hyun, an officer in charge of workplace safety issues at the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, told Al Jazeera that advocates would work to extend the law to all workplaces with more than five employees, in the instead of 50 currently.
Jung said the law should also be expanded to involve government officials responsible for overseeing safety issues, and should include a clause specifically aimed at construction company owners who order workers to speed up the completion of projects to reduce labor costs.
The momentum for the sanctions law was sparked in 2018 when Kim Yong-kyun, a 24-year-old thermal power plant worker, died on the job. Kim was crushed when he fell into machinery while working the night shift alone. Labor advocates argued he should have been partnered with a partner who could have shut down the machines and saved Kim’s life, and that his case was emblematic of how companies risk worker safety to reduce labor costs.
After Kim’s death, her mother became a recognizable activist calling for legislation that is now the law of the land.
She and others have long insisted that the big companies that dominate South Korea – which include global brands such as Samsung and Hyundai – have operated above the law for too long.
“Even now, a lot of people sympathize with companies rather than workers,” Kwon Oh-seong, a professor of labor law at Sungshin University, told Al Jazeera. “Corporate managers take profits for themselves as they pass on accidents and other costs to society.”
“To resolve this situation, I think we need to make businesses a little more uncomfortable,” Kwon said. “Passing the Serious Disasters Punishment Act is the starting point for this resolution process.”