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Choosing Between Profit and ResponsibilityProblems and solutions on irregular workers in Yonsei Univ.
Kim Yoon-ha  |
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승인 2008.11.27  18:51:27
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Editor's Note:

Combating for what is the best for oneself is a matter of course. Sometimes, the effort only seems to be continuing and not coming to a desired end, however, getting the adversary to listen could easily solve the problem. It is time for Yonsei Univ. and the workers to start listening to each other to be able to come up with better strategies and plans. For the students, taking sides should happen after when fully aware of the story. This month's cover story wishes to minimize the students' biased support or criticism for any side without completely identifying the situation.

Kim Soo-ji, Editor, Campus Reporting Div.



 THE CONFLICTS between irregular workers and their employers have become pervasive in the Korean society. Sit-down strikes and demonstrations of irregular workers are easily seen around Yeouido in front of big corporations. Nowadays, the wave of neo-liberalism and flexibility in the labor market is hitting non profit organizations as well. At universities in Korea, irregular workers are also fighting for their rights..
   Today, Yonsei Univ. is struggling with its irregular workers, who are voicing their anger. The introduction of an unmanned security system took the jobs of the irregular workers. On Oct. 10, 2008, the guards at Engineering Hall Ⅰ, Ⅱ, and Ⅲ were dismissed but reinstated seven days later due to opposition from students and the labor union. This event raised awareness to past issues regarding the irregular workers: the sit-down strike over the retirement age in January 2008, and the legal dispute over unpaid wages in March 2008.


Angry workers against the unmanned security system

   As of October 2008, Yonsei Univ. introduced the unmanned security system to monitor the entrances and professors’ laboratories of 13 buildings including Billingsley Hall, Engineering Hall I, II, and III, and Stimson Hall. With the new system, the students and the faculties of a university can scan their ID cards on an electronic reader to enter or leave a building without a guard’s involvement. Not requiring human labor, the unmanned security system lessens the burden of being charged with labor costs, and this reality appears more attractive to universities. However, such comfort and benefit created a mass reduction of human labor, naturally upsetting the guards, the irregular workers.
   The irregular workers brought up two main problems of introducing the unmanned security system in the university. They first pointed out the limitations of the system. The security guards not only guard the buildings, but also serve many other jobs such as opening and closing of the classrooms, keeping the buildings clean, doing regular check-ups of the facilities, managing emergency calls from the women’s toilet, and even helping the disabled to pass through the building. The irregular workers asserted that these kind of duties cannot be performed by the unmanned security system. In addition, if the guards are dismissed, the administrative work, which they have been doing, will be thrust upon the custodians or abandoned completely.
   The university is not making any efforts to guarantee the workers’ living, and this is another problem. There still exists the possibility of numerous guards’ being dismissed. They could come back to their workplaces as a part of Joint Measure Committee for Solution on Irregular Workers in Yonsei Univ., doing assemblies. However, Yoon Mun-sik (Chief, Office of General Affairs, Yonsei Univ.) said that half of the guards would be dismissed when the unmanned security system is installed, making the guards working in Yonsei Univ. worry about their living.

Different thoughts of the universities

   The claims of the irregular workers are reasonable; however, the universities also have their reasons to introduce the unmanned security system. The staff at Yonsei Univ. that just began using the system and the staff at both Korea Univ. and Kyung Hee Univ., where the system has already have been implemented, emphasize and highly value the economic benefits of the system. Lee Ki-won (Chief, Office of General Affairs, Kyung Hee Univ.) said, “By introducing the system, about 20~30% of the university budget can be reduced.” Yoon also said, “The contract between the subcontractor and Yonsei Univ. expires in February 2008, so it is not possible to disclose the exact amount of the budget can was reduced. However, the rate is going to be very similar to that of other universities, where the unmanned security system currently is being operated. Of course, the bigger the university is, the more money can be saved.”
   Increasing pressure of personnel expenses is another reason. “It is natural that the university wants to spare expense as much as we can,” added Yoon. The labor cost is increasing every year and one way to lessen the university’s burden is to introduce the unmanned security system instead of hiring human laborers. He also said that as far as financial conditions allow, the capital left from the change of systems would be used to provide scholarships for the students or to development the university. In addition to the curtailment of labor costs, other economic profits are expected. The surveillance cameras included in the unmanned guard system reduce the campus break-ins and fires which incur high expenses due to damages and the property loss in Yonsei Univ.
   In Korea Univ., they drew up a contract to success every guard to the security company. Half the guards who originally worked at Korea Univ. stayed at school, and the other half started working in other regions under the company’s charge. In the case of Kyung Hee Univ., Lee said “We came to an agreement before introducing the electronic security system. When the contract between the school and the outsourcing company became due, the guards went to other regions to work.” Currently, the guards who originally belong to the staff of Kyung Hee Univ. are working only during the day.

Other similar problems which have occurred

   The unmanned security system issue raised other problems, which were silently taking place in Yonsei Univ. In January 2008, Yonsei Univ. announced that it would lower the retirement age to 62. This remark meant that half of the custodians working at that time would be dismissed. The custodians staged a sit-down demonstration and constantly held campaigns, and finally they could delete the new regulation about lowering the retirement age from the document.
   Two months later, another issue was brought to the surface. Irregular workers who belonged to Myungshin Development called for payment of overdue wages in the amount of \350 million. Myungshin Development had the liability to pay the wages to the irregular workers, but then it announced bankruptcy. The problem was that Yonsei Univ. received \350 million, the same amount as the overdue wages, from the company last year as a university development fund. University authorities made it clear that they would return the money to Myungshin Development, but the Joint Measure Committee for Solution on Irregular Workers in Yonsei Univ. insisted that the school should give the money directly to the workers. However, as there were complicated legal problems concerning the wages, the repayment was kept on hold. Finally, on Nov. 7, 2008, 101 irregular workers received their overdue wages. The officials of Yonsei Univ. returned the money, the university development fund, to Myungshin Development. Then, Myungshin and the members of the labor union in Yonsei Univ. wrote a written agreement about the overdue wages, finally ending the long conflict. “Still, we have to decide how to distribute \350 million to 101 workers and the rest of the workers who did not belong to the labor union have to be paid. But the problem between Yonsei Univ. and us is resolved,” said Kim Kyung-soon (Chief, Labor Union, Yonsei Univ.).
   This month, the contract between the guards working at Muak Dormitory and Housing Office of Yonsei Univ. expires. The original expiration date was Oct. 31, 2008, but it was extended for two months automatically because of some legal matters about landscape gardening. Muak Dormitory is one of the buildings where the unmanned security system is being introduced, and the guards working there are worrying about receiving a dismissal notice from the Housing Office. 


Face the unavoidable

   Conflicts between the universities and the irregular workers seem inevitable. For one reason, irregular worker law paradoxically generates more and more irregular workers. The purpose of this law is to prohibit discrimination against irregular workers and to convert them into regular workers after working for two years. People expected that reforming the law would decrease the number of irregular workers. On the contrary, the number of workers who lack the stability in employment like guards and custodians, or contingent workers increased. Due to the regulation concerning the conversion, enterprises evaded employing temporary workers. The companies replaced temporary workers with indefinite contract workers, cancelling full-time contracts to part-time, or replacing workers via indirect employment such as dispatch and service workers like most of the universities in Korea.
   These problems are not only found in Yonsei Univ., but also among Korean universities in general. “We are caught in a trap of irregular workers,” said Lee Byoung-hoon (Prof., Dept. of Sociology, Chung-Ang Univ.). “According to statistical data from the Korean government, the number of irregular workers reaches almost half the Korean population. People think that as we are living in the world of neo-liberalism, we should make the labor market flexible. This thought is producing more irregular workers nowadays.” Another reason is that two sides are standing on totally opposite sides. From the universities’ point of view, as students and their parents always resist whenever the universities announce a raise in registration fee, the university needs to be frugal in every aspect. Among the atmosphere, the most efficient choice is introducing the unmanned security system and reducing the number of workers. From the irregular workers’ point of view, however, most of them are having hard time living day by day, and if the universities fire them, they have no way to make a living.


Then, solve the conflict

   It is obvious that both sides, the university and the irregular workers , have to take some actions in order to minimize the conflicts. The irregular workers should try to acknowledge the fact that there are some inevitable reasons for the universities to decrease the number of the workers. “I feel sorry for the situation of the irregular workers who worked at our university. I cannot, however, deny the merits of the unmanned security system. Students could not go in the buildings at night even during the examination weeks. Now, through the new system , students can enter the buildings 24 hours a day, it has been really convenient,” said Min Byeong-kyu (Sr., Col. of Tourism Management, Kyung Hee Univ.). The members of the Labor Union in Yonsei Univ. should understand the objectives of the universities for introducing the system.
   The university also should have a strong sense of responsibility regarding the irregular workers’ problems. Prof. Lee said that “Just like corporations have a social responsibility, the universities have to think about their roles in this era. There can be some positive effects on reducing the guards and introducing the unmanned security system. However, is it good for the universities to only think about the economic aspect and be the subject of producing the irregular workers?” As a school with a high reputation, Yonsei Univ. should solve the problem by not only pursuing its benefits but also taking responsibility for the weak. People see universities as ivory towers of knowledge and the universities have to hold some humanity rather than efficiency. “Yonsei Univ. is saying that it can reduce the school budget dramatically by introducing the unmanned security system, but since when did the universities become like an enterprise regarding money as number one? The university should not be all about the money,” said Kim Dae-hoon who is in Sal-mat, a group of Yonsei students discussing the matters on irregular workers.

*         *         *

   Early in October 2008, the representative group consisted of several students and workers, had a meeting with Jung Kyu-yeon (Chief, Office of Property Administration, Yonsei Univ.). On this matter, Jung said that the university will not let anybody get hurt.
   Like the staff in Yonsei Univ. said, if the situation is inevitable, they should find a way to minimize the damage to each other. The problems caused by the unmanned security system started at the beginning of this year and still it does not seem like that they are getting any closer to a solution. These conflicts are not only between the universities and the irregular workers, but between the development of technology and human labor. Then, the start of solution should be “communication.” What helped Kyung Hee Univ. amicably solve the problem was that the school authorities talked. Although some students were protested, the authorities talked with the student leaders of each college. Also, the university sent e-mails to the entire student body, explaining the purpose and the effect of the unmanned security system. What Yonsei Univ. needs to do is talk. It is not desirable for the irregular workers to blame the university and make unreasonable demands. They have to listen and try to understand. The university, too, should talk with the workers. If the things are unavoidable, the students and the workers will understand, and they should try to solve the problem together.




"Universities are nonprofit organizations." This fact creates all the conflicts between universities and irregular workers. As universities cannot pursue economic profit, they have to be frugal of their budget. In the case of irregular workers, most of them are old people who are already having hard time maintaining their living. However, I hope the readers not to think that Yonsei Univ. is bad, or the irregular workers are pitiful people who should be protected unconditionally. Not only Yonsei Univ. but also many Korean universities and the employers and irregular workers under a capitalist country are facing these similar problems. If conflicts are inevitable, they should try to resolve them with various ways. I also hope the readers could look at the matters objectively and think about the solutions together. If Yonsei Univ. take into consideration about the moral responsibility as a educational institution, and if the irregular workers open their minds to talk, I think they will be able to find out a meeting point.



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