South Korea warns CEOs of controversial occupational safety law technology

Seoul, South Korea – In South Korea, “business as usual” will change dramatically with the implementation of legislation that can hold the management of companies, including CEOs, legally responsible for accidents at work.

The Serious Disaster Punishment Act, which went into effect Thursday, provides for a one-year prison sentence or a billion won ($ 835,000) in fines for business owners and executives in the event of accidents that cause death or serious injury.

When the law went into effect, it was already in the headlines after the collapse of a block of flats under construction in the southern city of Guangzhou earlier this month left several people dead or missing – just months after another building collapse in the city killed nine.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.

Business owners insist the law will have a chilling effect on the already shaky South Korean economy, making companies reluctant to launch new projects while introducing heaps of new bureaucracy.

The main criticism is that the legislation fails to state the reasons why senior officials are personally responsible for accidents at work, as CEOs and senior management are usually absent from work and tend not to monitor the details of physical work. .

“The significance of the law is that it provides management with responsibility for preventing serious accidents and aims to draw managers’ attention to safety,” Kuon Huck, a law professor at the National University of Busan, told Al Jazeera.

“The biggest problem with it is the ambiguity in its provisions. As it imposes a severe penalty, its provisions must be very clear, but they are not.

Another criticism is that smaller companies, which make up the majority of employment in South Korea, do not have the capacity to implement systems that ensure strict compliance with the law or cover court fees that could be incurred.

“My concern is that the tip of the knife is now aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises and that the law can be applied arbitrarily,” Jung Jin-u, an occupational safety expert at Seoul National University, told Al Jazeera. “The government has created an atmosphere of fear and law firms have taken the lead.

Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions carry flags during a May Day rally at Seoul Plaza in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, May 1, 2018 (AP Photo / Lee Jin-man)Labor activists in South Korea support legislation, the company’s holding company is responsible for accidents at work [File: Lee Jin-man/AP]

In a November study 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 biggest concerns about the law are the “unclear scope and responsibilities of the manager” and insufficient time to prepare for compliance with the law, the study found.

“Foreign companies can reduce the size of their business and postpone new investments if their CEO is punished by the Serious Disaster Punishment Act,” the chamber said in a statement.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor told Al Jazeera that the government is consulting with smaller companies on how to improve their health and safety systems while providing financial support for accident prevention projects.

“From now on, safety is a necessity for business operators,” the ministry said.

The 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 incidents that have outraged society and raised questions about the tendency to cut corners or speed up projects in order to save money. According to government figures, there have been 53 deaths from industrial accidents in the last five years.

Perhaps the most famous is the collapse of the Sampoong department store in 1995 in Seoul. More than 500 people have died in the collapse of a shopping mall considered a symbol of South Korea’s growing middle class. Subsequent investigation has shown that poor construction materials and careless management are factors in the disaster.

In 2014, hundreds of high school students died in the sinking of the Sewol ferry, a vessel that had undergone a major overhaul to increase the amount of cargo it could carry.

Given this grim history, some labor advocates argue that the new legislation does not go far enough.

“We need to make companies more inconvenient”

Jung Jae-hyun, a workplace safety officer at the Korean Trade Union Confederation, told Al Jazeera that defenders would work to extend the law to all jobs with more than five employees instead of the current 50.

Jung said the law should also be expanded to include government officials in charge of safety oversight, and should include a clause specifically targeted at construction company owners who order workers to speed up completion. projects to save labor costs.

The momentum for the Penal Code was sparked in 2018 when Kim Yong-kyun, a 24-year-old worker at a thermal power plant, died at work. Kim was crushed when he fell into machines while working alone during the night shift. Proponents say he should have teamed up with a partner who could turn off the machine and save Kim’s life, and that his case is emblematic of how companies risk workers’ safety to reduce labor costs.

After Kim’s death, his mother became a recognizable activist, calling for legislation that is now the country’s law.

She and others have long insisted that the big companies that dominate South Korea, including global brands such as Samsung and Hyundai, have been working on the law for too long.

“Even now, many people sympathize with companies instead of workers,” Kuon O-son, a professor of labor law at Sungshin University, told Al Jazeera. “Corporate managers take profits for themselves while passing on accidents and other costs to society.

“To correct this situation, I think we need to make companies a little more awkward,” Kuon said. “The adoption of the Law on Punishment in Serious Disasters is the starting point for this process of its correction.

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