Radical precarisation and workers’ radical responses

It is sometimes said that Korean Peninsula has been an amplifier of foreign systems of thought that have taken here a more fervent form than in places where they originally came from. Apart from Confucianism and Christianity, another obvious example that quickly comes to mind is the extreme form of state-socialism persisting in the North which contrasts starkly with what some call hyper-capitalism in the South. The neoliberal model, which originated in the US and the UK in the 1970s, has been arguably taken further in South Korea than in any other developed country. For example, labour market deregulation reached a level where more than half workers are in temporary, “non-regular” jobs (Standing, 2011). Arguably, this country has the largest "precariat" among OECD countries.  The issue of precarisation is now very present in public awareness in Korea as reflected in as many tv dramas and movies bringing up this topic.

On the opposite side of this rather radical politics of deregulation and labour market flexibilisation is an equally radical trade union movement. Historically, labour movement in Korea has been known for its militancy. According to Minns (2012), “for at least one part of the 1980s, and through some of the 1990s as well, the South Korean working class was perhaps the most militant in the world.” Similar to countries like Ireland, this labour movement has been additionally fueled by aspirations of national independence from external powers as well as pro-democratic aspirations as it is embodied in the minjung movement. While it has lost its influence after democratization, we can notice growing radicalisation in recent years, especially when it comes to forms of protests that workers take.  

One form of protests that has become more common and which I would like to tell you more about in this post is the so called aerial or sky protest, in Korean haneul toojeng. In short, sky protests take place at industrial cranes, factory towers, transmission towers, bridges, chimneys, and CCTV towers and other high altitude places. Usually they involve a single individual or a small group of 2-3 people that may represent a larger group of workers. What may appear as an individualistic action in fact requires substantial help from people “on the group” because it is not rare that the protester(s) stay on the high altitudes for several months, sometimes almost a year. This is how Lee Yoonkyung from the State University of New York describes these protests:

Protesters enter an almost fast mode because food for subsistence needs to be delivered to the top by supporters on the ground and they intake only a small portion to minimize the amount of their human excreta, which also need to be transported down to the ground; the act of releasing human excreta cannot be kept in privacy because the space is open. The space and weather is often highly treacherous and thus inimical to even minimal resting or sleeping; the protesters are literally isolated from the rest of the world except their reliance on a cell phone; and all these predicaments taken together can easily undermine the physical and psychological conditions of the protester.

Sky protests are an old phenomenon as they originate from the Japanese colonial period. Their frequency grew significantly since the 2000s following the Asian Financial Crisis which coincides with the arrival of neoliberal politics to this previously protected and highly regulated economy. Their current form changed in terms of use of communication technology and media. Protesters use Twitter and Facebook for live updates meaning that anyone anywhere can easily follow the events in real time. Indeed, these protests have proved to be able to gain a lot of social media attention. This is illustrated with a case of Jin-sook Kim - tens of thousands of her supporters hopped on the so called “Bus of Hope” organized to bring them to the crane no.85 at Hanjin shipyard in Busan where she stayed for 309 days. This campaign was recognized as a real threat not just to the company’s image but also to the national government at that time (Shober, 2013). Therefore, aerial protest is not necessarily an individualistic action of a desperate individual but can be potent in organizing broader civil society around major social issues. The specificity of Korea, in terms of the level of digitalisation of this society unmatched by any other country, and thus a strong netizen movements, which has previously been able to organize massive actions, might be the factor adding to this. Apart from mobilizing potential, another strength of sky protest is that the high altitude makes any police intervention to break the protest very dangerous and, thus, virtually impossible when social and mainstream media are watching.

On the other hand, these protests have been also seen as an expression of helplessness felt by South Korean workers. Using sub-contracted workers, whose wages are often 40% less than those of directly employed staff, is much more common in Korean than in Western companies. At Incheon International Airport, for example, it is estimated that 87% of workers are employed through sub-contractors (Equal Times, 2013). In the labour market where more than half of employment is of non-regular nature, a worker who loses his/her job has little chances of getting back into permanent contract ever again. Could this explain the radical forms of protests which develop in South Korea: pushed to the wall, people escape to unconventional methods of protest?

Sky-protests are only one of them. Last month a worker at a tire factory in Gwangju committed self-immolation as a protest against the company’s decision to change his and his colleague’s status to contracted employees. The act of self-immolation brings memories of Jeon Tae Il who thirty-five years set himself in a protest against appalling conditions in sweatshops. While sweatshops have moved out of Korea since then, the last month’s self-immolation brings attention to a new plight of workers in this now high-tech economy.   

It is worth looking at South Korean case because, with the proceeding precarisation and labour market flexibilisation in Europe, it may possibly indicate where the rest of us is heading towards.   

Note: There is an ongoing aerial protest by the two workers from Ssanyang auto plant, Lee Chang-geun and Kim Jeong-wook. You can google it for more information.

Lee, Yoonkyung (forthcoming) ‘Resistance up in the Sky: New Forms of Labor Protest in Neoliberal Korea’


Minns, John (2012) ‘South Korea – the “making” of a working class in a newly industrialized country’ in H. Cho, L. Surendra and H. Cho (Eds.) ‘Contemporary South Korean Society: A Critical Perspective”.

Schober, Elisabeth (2013) ‘Off-shoring resistance? South Korea’s Hope Bus movement and its repercussions in the Phillippines’, http://www.najaks.org/?p=914


Standing, Guy (2011) ‘The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class’.

Posted in: Trade Unions
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