Disposable Workers of Hyper-Capitalist Korea

Opinion

Samsung Electronics Service Engineers Union members protest at the company headquarters in Seoul with portraits of their deceased colleague. (Credit: Jun Michael Park)
Samsung Electronics Service Workers’ Union members protested at Samsung’s Seoul headquarters in May with portraits of their deceased colleague. (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

A call-center manager beats her subordinates with an umbrella at an office in Jongno, Seoul. She slaps them in the face over and over. She pushes them around till they cry. All for not selling enough magazine subscriptions.

As a contributor to the publication of the International Trade Union Confederation, I have become numb to such stories about South Korean workers under extreme duress. If I took every story personally, I would not have sanity left for my own survival.

Last year a saleswoman at Lotte Department Store in Cheongnyang-ri jumped off the roof of her store building allegedly because she could not cope with the intense pressure to meet sales quotas. Hers was the second suicide in connection with Lotte Department Store in the first half of 2013.

This year’s cautionary tale is about a security guard at a posh apartment complex in Gangnam who committed self-immolation after suffering extraordinary verbal and psychological abuse from residents, particularly one elderly woman. He had third-degree burns all over his body and eventually died in hospital.

Extreme. Intense. Extraordinary. There are not enough adjectives to describe the mistreatment of workers at the bottom of the South Korean employment hierarchy. The question, though, is why this state of affairs continues unchallenged.

Often there is widespread outrage when these stories are reported. This past weekend a part-time worker at a café inside a KTX (high-speed rail) station wrote online that she had had toast thrown in her face for not being quick enough in catering to a customer. Her account generated a great deal of sympathy, with some internet users going so far as to volunteer to punish the perpetrating customer on her behalf.

The KTX station clerk ultimately received an apology from the offender via KakaoTalk after the online post went viral. I doubt, however, that much will change from this. There are a lot of well-meaning people here who believe that all workers deserve to be treated with respect no matter the occupation. But not every South Korean interacts with workers — by which I mean blue-collar and service workers — with utmost courtesy.

It is easy enough to see this just in entering a coffee shop, where staff smile and use the most polite form of speech to speak with customers, who often fail to accord on those on the other side of the counter the same token of respect. Harder still is to observe a single customer properly greet or bid goodbye to a salesperson.

I brought this up with a South Korean acquaintance who admitted, “Oh, I didn’t even realize I was doing that”. Indifference to low-wage workers is all-pervasive, to the point that most of us subconsciously embrace the same attitude. We are all conditioned to see service workers as automated machines until a truly outrageous episode provokes us, animates our moral compass, and reminds us something is rotten in the state of South Korea.

On my Facebook page the call-center beating generated quite a discussion among friends, many of whom are academics specializing in Korea. In trying to locate the root cause of rampant violence against workers — physical, verbal, and psychological — the disagreement came down to whether we should primarily fault capitalism or Korea’s culture and recent history of colonialism, militarisation, and entrenched biases against manual labour.

It is true that capitalism in an unregulated form fundamentally dehumanises individual workers as nothing more than providers of labour, for which wage is seen as sufficient compensation. But as expressed by my colleagues at the Korean House for International Solidarity (KHIS), an NGO that monitors South Korean corporations, there are also capitalist states (all hail parts of Europe, especially enlightened Scandinavia) where the kind of customer and corporate behavior that is the norm in South Korea would be hardly tolerated.

While abuses do persist everywhere, in some countries one can count on labour standards and regulatory bodies to ensure that being a worker does not have to entail surrendering one’s humanity. If I am to paraphrase what a Parisian friend said, “If you act like an asshole in a store in France, you will get treated like an asshole”.

South Korea, however, is not one of those countries. 6 million people or a third of the “economically active population” here are employed as temporary workers, at a salary only slightly more than half what regular employees make. Large corporations routinely use a sub-contractor to disguise employer-employee relations so they are not held to labour standards.

Unions can face threats of deregistration on technical grounds, and their leaders frequently go in and out of jail. Police are routinely dispatched to suppress protests, and workers on strike are mercilessly fined for having inflicted financial damages on corporations. Contracts can go unenforced, working conditions can be deplorable, and prosecutors do not always heed the pleas of employees even when there is clear evidence to prove corporate wrongdoing.

The call-center workers have waited more than a year for the state prosecution service to act, and they are still waiting. So much patience for so little action. Meanwhile, all security guards at the apartment complex where the self-immolation took place have been informed of termination effective on 31 December.

To understand the South Korean labour situation, it is necessary to deploy a new term to describe the system: godo jabonjuui — hyper-capitalism. As used by some of my South Korean friends, it does not carry a critical connotation: It means that South Korea, as a rapidly developed economic powerhouse, has embraced and refined capitalism to the point unseen in other countries, a fact noted with no small amount of pride.

But the term also implies that something is off with the South Korean version of capitalism, which has thoroughly succeeded in inculcating conviction in money as the singular measure of good both public and private, unencumbered by state regulation or respect for basic rights. Being the ‘purest’ form of capitalism, it also represents the worst form of the ideology imaginable.

The perniciousness of South Korean capitalism is unsurprising, given that the Korean Peninsula has been something of an amplifier for foreign systems of thought, often not for the best. North Korea has given rise to ‘communism’ — for lack of a better word — at its most entrenched and repressive. Christianity has morphed into a strangely fervent form here, attracting a quarter of the population, producing the second-largest number of Christian missionaries in the world, and offending myriad other religions and nations. Some point out that even Confucianism is far more dogmatic and authoritarian in South Korea than in its birthplace, China.

Add to the South Korean interpretation of capitalism the longstanding contempt for manual labour, a cult of education, and a century-long history of authoritarianism — first under the colonial regime and later under the military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, and Roh Tae-woo — and we have a highly regimented society where rules of politeness and one’s social standing depend exclusively on money, education, and power. Those without any of the three are doomed to suffer.

One person asked on Facebook — half in jest, I assume — why the call-centre employees did not throw the abusive manager out the window. I would answer that it is the same reason rage at abuses of workers is expressed only in the anonymous space of the internet: There is fear of acting out, being singled out, and never experiencing justice even after taking the risk to speak out.

That is why South Korean workers at their wits’ end often choose death, because it is the only weapon they have at their disposal for inflicting any damage on a hyper-capitalist system that treats human beings as expendable labour and disposes of them like garbage. Sacrificing one’s life is the only effective way to draw attention to one’s own plight, however briefly, like a shooting star that lights up the night sky before dimming down to nothingness.

One such who chose this course was Yeom Ho-seok, a member of the Samsung Electronics Service Workers’ Union, who took his own life inside a car near the east coast in May to protest crackdowns on his organization and demand better working conditions for his colleagues. His death and the subsequent removal of his body by the police — for reasons they would not disclose to me — ignited a strike and protest that lasted weeks in front of Samsung’s Seoul headquarters.

For all that ails South Korean workers, the Park Geun-hye administration’s current motto is “Creative Economy”, a thinly veiled euphemism for deregulation. There is no reason to believe that employment protection is high up on the president’s agenda. There is little possibility of reform from within.

Workers will thus continue to take their lives. For all their expressiveness, South Koreans I know are not prone to expressing their grief, at least not until they can no longer bear the circumstance of their own lives. And as far as I can see, they live in an irredeemably bleak world, where they are regularly pushed to within an inch of the brink.

There is no immediate hope in this land of hyper-capitalism.

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Editor’s Note: On the same day this article was published, it was announced that the Ministry of Strategy and Finance was considering a proposal, in collaboration with the Ministry of Labor, to make it easier for companies to terminate employees on regular contracts. The aim is ostensibly to increase “employment flexibility” and decrease the difference in treatment received by regular and temporary employees. In return, the government promised to subsidize the costs borne by corporations that transferred workers from temporary contracts to regular contracts.

For more details on this story, please click on this link [in Korean]. 

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.