Outsourced Lives in South Korea

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  • The statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin stands at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, seemingly guarding the young Korean man in the picture. Because of its geographical proximity to the Blue House (the Korean President’s office) and national government offices, sociopolitical issues in South Korea often flow into this open public space.

  • Passing around a microphone, workers cry that the next Kim Yong-gyun could be them.

  • At the Sejong Center next to Gwanghwamun Square, subcontractors from various fields meet with journalists and their cameras before making an announcement and giving an interview.

  • One of the items in Kim’s bag was Cup Noodles, which he presumably ate because he did not have enough money or time for regular meals as a subcontractor. The contract workers at the demonstration spread Cup Noodles containers on the ground to symbolize their poor working conditions.

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On December 18, 2018, at Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square, I encountered a drawing of a young Korean man whose eyes conveyed that he had many stories to tell. I realized it was part of a temporary memorial arranged for the young man, Kim Yong-gyun. I took out my phone to search for his name on the Internet.

Kim’s name appeared on top of the trending news section, which featured articles from international news agencies. They detailed that one week prior, 24-year-old Kim, a subcontractor, was working a night shift alone at a thermal power plant when he was found dead at midnight.1 He appeared to have died after getting trapped under a conveyor belt, though his body was in a terrible state because the machinery could not immediately be shut down.2  When his family later searched his bag, they found a container of Cup Noodles and a broken flashlight.

Some distance from the memorial, a group of South Korean (sub)contractors, or “irregular workers,” congregated before news cameras to commemorate Kim’s death and announce a massive rally against employment inequalities and discrimination scheduled for the following weekend.3 Spreading containers of Cup Noodles on the ground, they further bemoaned that the outsourcing of dangerous, dirty, and difficult projects led to Kim’s death. They cried, “We are all Kim Yong-gyun” and demanded an end to the “outsourcing of danger and death.” But how did this tragedy happen in the first place?

Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the number of contract workers in South Korea increased as Korean companies which had replaced lifelong jobs with temporary positions under the flag of flexible employment.4 Moreover, the companies began hiring young, unskilled contract workers on a temporary basis to further reduce costs—the companies did not even properly train them before letting them work alone like Kim’s case.  As a result of the disappearance of lifetime employment, employment stability decreased, widening the gap between working classes, generations, and genders, and it deepened socioeconomic inequalities in terms of quality of life.5

In response to Kim’s death, the South Korean National Assembly passed a revised industrial safety bill, the Kim Yong-gyun Bill, at the end of 2018.6 In March 2019, Lee Sang-heon, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Employment Policy Department Director, visited Seoul. While commenting on Kim’s death, he recommended at South Korea ratify four of the ILO’s eight key conventions.7 The ratification of these conventions could make it possible for irregular workers, including laid-off workers, to organize and join a labor union and negotiate their labor environment with their employers, as well as not be forced to work.

The European Union has also been urging South Korea to pass such a bill as the ratification of the ILO’s key conventions was one of the South Korea-EU FTA provisions.8 Both South Korea and the EU agreed to establish an expert panel that is currently investigating the South Korean government’s progress towards ratification. In addition, the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recently joined the EU in criticizing Seoul for insufficient legislative efforts.9 Some researchers warn that the international community will likely exert more pressure on the South Korean government with economic sanctions.10

On August 19, 2019, eight months after Kim’s death and my time at Gwanghawmun Square, a special investigation committee concluded that Kim had followed all the rules, and the outsourcing of dangerous work without proper safety measures was the main cause of his death.11 The international community has become increasingly concerned with South Korea’s labor conditions and its failure to ratify the four remaining ILO conventions. Consequently, South Korean “irregular workers” remain vulnerable to low incomes, violence, danger, and even death.

About the Author

Tae Yeon Eom is a Ph.D. candidate in Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. His research covers a wide range of theories and case studies in international relations and diplomatic history. He is deeply interested in capturing contemporary and global socio-political issues with his camera and also likes to write articles for photojournals.


1. Seung-woo Kang, “Subcontractor Operations Criticized after Young Man’s Death,” The Korea Times, December 13, 2018, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2019/08/371_260340.html.

2. Kang, 2018.

3. Suh-yoon Lee, “‘I could be next’: irregular workers say after young mechanic’s death,” The Korea Times, December 23, 2018, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2018/12/371_260843.html.

4. Jong-hwi Jeon, “More than 2 million in S. Korea living as subcontractor workers,” Hankyoreh, September 29, 2014, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/657350.html. The article cites Yoo-seon Kim’s research, which “estimates that the number of dispatch and temp workers jumped from 449,000 in 2001 to 767,000 in 2007. These figures do not even include a considerable number of in-house subcontractor workers.” Also see, Steven Denney, “South Korea Needs a Welfare State,” The Diplomat, October 2, 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/10/south-korea-needs-a-welfare-state/; Steven Borowiec, “IMF’s Bitter Medicine Brought Growth, But Also Inequality,” YaleGlobal Online, February 22, 2018, https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/imfs-bitter-medicine-brought-growth-also-inequality.

5. Byoung-Hoon Lee and Kwang-Yeong Shin, “Job Mobility of Non-Regular Workers in the Segmented Labor Markets,” Development and Society 46, no. 1 (June 1, 2017): 1–23; WooRam Park and Jisun Baek, “The Impact of Employment Protection on Health: Evidence from Fixed-Term Contract Workers in South Korea,” Social Science & Medicine 233 (July 1, 2019): 158–70. Contract workers are trapped in a vicious circle of irregular employment and gradually lose not only their hope for a better future but also their health. Lee and Shin (2017) show a lack of job mobility for irregular workers from temporary contract positions to regular full-time positions. As Park and Baek (2019) also statistically proved, poor working conditions and the psychological stress of job insecurity impair irregular workers’ health more easily.

6. Kyu-nam Kim, Jung-ae Lee, and Young-ji Seo, “National Assembly Passes Full Revision of Occupational Safety and Health Act,” Hankyoreh, December 31, 2018, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/876409.html. The new law came into effect as of January 16, 2020, but both employees and employers are not satisfied.

7. Bo-kyung Kim, “ILO Urges Seoul to Ratify Contract Worker Convention,” Korea Herald, March 7, 2019, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20190307000763. See more information about the ratifications for Republic of Korea through the Information System on International Labour Standards on the ILO website. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:11200:0::NO::P11200_COUNTRY_ID:103123.

8. Hyun-bin Kim, “EU responds to Korea’s failure to ratify ILO conventions,” The Korea Times, July 5, 2019, http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2019/11/371_271800.html.

9. Yon Hwangbo, “UN calls for S. Korea to ratify core ILO conventions,” Hankyoreh, January 6, 2020, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/923345.html. Also see “U.N. panel regrets S. Korea having no timeframe for ratifying key ILO conventions,” Yonhap News Agency, January 5, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200105000400315.

10. Jong-hwi Jeon, “EU may impose sanctions on S. Korea if ILO conventions not ratified, researcher says,” April 29, 2019, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/891963.html.

11. Soo-yeon Kim, “Panel Advises Power Plants to Stop Outsourcing of Certain Tasks after Probe,” Yonhap News Agency, August 19, 2019, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20190819003900315.


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In association with the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs