Girl’s Day’s Hyeri, employment laws and Korean youth disenfranchisement

Image: Girl’s Day’s Hyeri reminds young workers of the minimum wage.

Tired of criticism for her attitude or singing abilities, Hyeri recently caused controversy of a different kind by doing something that was, for all intents and purposes, worthwhile. The Girl’s Day member appeared a series of commercials for the job-hunting website Albamon reminding part-time workers of their rights.

Altogether she starred in three 15 second commercials: the first reminding Korea’s 5 million part-time workers of the country’s basic minimum wage (5,580 won); the second reminding business owners that workers should be paid time-and-a-half for overnight work; and the third encouraging part-time workers who are being treated badly to roll up their aprons, throw them at their boss and leave their job (and then, of course, find a new one on Albamon).

Although Hyeri has most likely never worked at a part-time minimum wage job (although has likely faced other employment rights infringements), the commercials have had a huge impact. They receive mostly positive feedback from netizens but some small business owners felt it portrayed them unfairly. The Cooperative of Internet Content Providers launched a petition as they were “seriously concerned the ad might cause conflict between employers and employees as the ad made the former appear unethical ignoring the minimum wage and night-time wage.” A few even chose to start their rival website Sajangmon (sajang means business owner whereas alba means part-time worker) but closed it down after 6 of the names of people involved in the site were leaked by an online community in favour of the commercial.

The 880,000 Generation

The 880,000 Generation

Support for the advert is unsurprising given how many young Koreans work in low-paid non-permanent positions. Young people in their 20s and early 30s in Korea are often referred to as the 880,000 won generation – a term that was coined in 2007 by the authors of a book of the same name. The number refers to the average take home pay of young temporary workers, a position the authors argue that 95% of those in their 20s will find themselves in. In contrast, Korea has the highest percentage of young graduates in the world (65% of 25-34 year olds in 2012 according to the OECD). This means many young people are overqualified and underemployed with little chance of actually getting the job they are qualified for stuck in lowly paid jobs with no security or benefits. The cost of tuition fees also almost tripled between 2010 and 2014 making it much more difficult for students to make ends meet while studying.

However at the same time, it should be noted that many of these employers are franchisees of major convenience store and food brands, often struggling to make ends meet due a highly competitive market where dozens of similar outlets can be found on every street. For many, their franchise is an investment of their retirement fund but this is often quite precarious and the real money makers are the large national and international brands they franchise.

The adverts themselves are an interesting glimpse at the role consumerism is playing in changing culture. The tagline is ‘The alba is gab’ (알바가 갑이다). Gab here refers to the concept of the gab-eul relationship defined by Naver’s user-generated dictionary as:

“The power dynamic between two people or groups. Gab represents the person with more power, and eur is the subjugated. It originally comes from the legal terminology, but is now used to talk about any relationships such as boss/subordinate, women/men, adult/child etc.”

20130509_1367998664.Traditionally the gab in this relationship is, of course, the employer but here albamon is trying to turn the tables in favour of the employee. In the past, this may have been considered inappropriate but it has mostly been received well by the general public. Perhaps this indicates changing attitudes to individual rights and hierarchical social structure.

On the other hand it could just be a way for the company to entice young workers feeling powerless in their workplace to empower themselves by using their service. Many young people are disenfranchised with Korea’s working culture – a recent survey showed 6 out of 10 university students want to work abroad due to better working conditions and corporate culture.

In some ways, this advert has actually empowered these disenfranchised workers by giving them the information they need to protect their own rights and perhaps even the confidence to do so. In fact, albamon have succeeded far better than the government organisation tasked with disseminating this information. KoreanBizWire points out that a video entitled “10 Commandments for Teenage Part-time Workers” from 2013 created by the Ministry of Employment and Labor has less than 2000 views compared to the hundreds of thousands that the Hyeri ad has racked up in just a few weeks.

Only in Korea would the most effective way to communicate labor rights to casual workers be through an idol using aegyo. Hee-ing!


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