How the pandemic has impacted the life of irregular workers in South Korea

The polarization between formal and informal workers lately received wide attention in South Korea. Our FES Korea Office took a closer look at the life of irregular workers in South Korea.

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A subway cleaning worker gets the first train to arrive at work at 5:58 am. Since the pandemic, subway cleaning workers have to sterilize everything six times a day alongside their regular duties. In an interview she shares that because of the extra cleaning, they are “always so short of time” and have to “literally run around.”

The food delivery riders of the pandemic era are also busier than ever. Due to the quarantine and social distancing, they work more than 13 hours a day making 50 deliveries. They are always tense, keeping their eyes on their phones even while they are driving or grabbing a bite for themselves on the go. For the food delivery riders, any missed delivery calls means that much less money. Despite all that, they take pride in getting food to hungry people and helping businesses when dining out is restricted. “Yes, we do contribute to (COVID-19) prevention,” says one food delivery rider. “We make social distancing possible and we’re kind of proud of it.”

Meanwhile, the quarantine and social distancing have had a totally different impact on the life of those providing a different service: daeri unjeon (literally “replacement driving”), a driver-for-hire service. These replacement drivers drive customers in their own car, usually to get them home after an evening of drinking. The service is particularly widespread in South Korea, employing more than 100,000 people for hundreds of thousands of customer rides per day, pre-pandemic. They get off work at 9pm these days, which is actually when they started to get busy before the pandemic. They come home after two or three calls a night earning about 11 euros per call. They barely earn half the money they used to earn before the pandemic now and after rent and other basics they have nothing much left. “It feels like a volunteer job,” says one such on-call chauffeur. While it is a very physically challenging and tiring work, mostly dealing with drunk customers and driving across the city all night, the money they earn does not match this level of labour. The replacement driver describes the intensity: “I eat well but I still lose weight. I was a football player, but this job is more tiring.” Nevertheless, the drivers still say they are doing very important and worthy work for they help exhausted workers get home safely, so they can go back to work the next day.

Experts assert that the uncertainties in the labour market are spreading to become uncertainties in society. People had been talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence, new forms of labour, etc. before the pandemic. Just as new forms of work were starting to emerge and spread, COVID-19 struck amidst all these unresolved issues. Platform and gig workers “were vulnerable groups to begin with,” says Professor Kim, Yoo Sun from Graduate School of Labour Studies at Korea University. According to Professor Kim, their vulnerability was hardly visible until various statistics on COVID-19 revealed that precarious workers were bearing the brunt of the crisis. “‘Essential workers’ is now a common term. Korea did well in managing the pandemic, because we had the logistics and riders to deliver anything and everything including food. So we owe our success to essential workers.” Lee Jiwon, an activist at Korea Women Link, also says that the workers whose labour kept the blood of society flowing despite huge changes should be appreciated, because these workers are the heroes that keep society from collapsing in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.

Experts also voice concern about the insecurity of the irregular workers. They worry that their forms of employment are so insecure that their very status as workers is contested. Their working conditions are very bad, including pay levels below minimum wage. The number of irregular workers such as freelance, platform, or self-employed workers are expected to keep increasing, meaning the problems they face, such as lack of recognition as workers, or of legal and institutional protection, will continue to grow. The experts say in unison that we need to change our mindset to create social consensus that all workers should be ensured safety and health as they work.

Han Na Kim is a project manager at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Korea Office. For more information on our work in Korea, visit korea.fes.de.

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