SEOUL -- Heralding a big change in strategy, the new leader of South Korea's most militant labor union group said on Tuesday it would seek more talks and fewer strikes to make the country a better place to invest.
Lee Soo Ho, recently elected to head the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), also told Reuters in an interview labor unions needed to refrain from demanding excessive wage hikes and said his group would try to make reasonable demands.
The KCTU, with a declared membership of 670,000, is smaller than the country's largest Federation of Korean Trade Unions but has led militant labor strikes in key export industries that have helped South Korea earn a reputation for violent demonstrations and frequent labor stoppages.
"In general, we will do more through negotiations and try to stop a 'struggles first' attitude," said Lee, a 54-year-old former high school teacher who is due to take office on Sunday for a three-year term.
Frequent labor stoppages led by militant unions, mostly members of the KCTU, and the resulting high wage rises have been blamed by foreign investors for making them shun South Korea as their investment destination. KCTU mainly covers heavy industries, including key auto makers and ship builders.
Lee's comments fell short of meeting management demands. A top employers' group issued a 41-page report on Tuesday calling for a wage freeze at large firms.
The Korea Employers Federation, which represents about 4,000 companies, said this would free up some 6.2 trillion won ($5.25 billion) that companies could use to hire more than 300,000 workers -- cutting unemployment to 2.5 percent from the 3.4 percent seen last year.
Wages in the first half of 2003 were up 11 percent from a year earlier, rising at almost triple the growth rate of labour productivity, which rose four percent over the same period.
The South Korean government has singled out job creation as the top policy priority this year as the job market has showed no sign of recovery despite an export-driven economic recovery.
President Roh Moo Hyun, a former labor lawyer, told the country in his New Year's speech unions should refrain from demanding excessive wage increases surpassing the pace of growth in labor productivity.
Lee said he wanted to meet Roh in the next few months to discuss labor-management relations.
"Regarding such concerns, we will re-think about the past practices of fighting for fighting itself and for the causes," said Lee, famous in the country for successfully leading a long struggle by South Korean teachers to set up their own union.
The government forecasts this year's jobless rate will not drop much as companies were reluctant to hire more workers despite a boom in exports. Instead, companies are more keen on investing in China and other countries with cheaper labor.
The employers federation said wages at the country's large companies -- those with 300 workers or more -- were on par with those in the United States or Japan, whose per-capita income is triple South Korea's.