The Koreas | Society | East Asia

South Korea’s After-School Child Care Workers Strike for Better Working Conditions

Workers want the government to guarantee pay for their extra working hours and stop a move to shift management of the industry from schools to local governments. 

Mitch Shin
South Korea’s After-School Child Care Workers Strike for Better Working Conditions

On November 6, 4,902 after-school child care workers in South Korea went on strike, urging the Education Ministry to provide better working conditions. Thirty-five percent of 12,211 after-school child-care classes were closed due to the strike on Friday and 41.3 percent of the total 11,859 workers participated in the strike on the same day, according to the Education Ministry.

The labor union of non-regular school workers had a press conference on November 5 to announce its plans and reasons for going on strike amid the pandemic. It said the government should guarantee the workers eight working hours a day, counting their pre-and-post class activities as part of their work. The union also demanded that the government block a bill that would shift management of the system of after-school classes from schools to local governments.

Typically, workers teach for about 4 to 6 hours a day on a fixed schedule, but necessary administrative work has not been counted in their working hours. This creates a loophole where they do extra work without getting paid.

Choi Eun-hee, a chief policy officer of the union, told The Diplomat on Monday that they had no choice but to call a strike even though they knew it was not good for students, parents, and themselves in the middle of the crisis.

“When schools were not opened in March and April, we were the only ones who kept working at schools since the pandemic began. But now, we have no choice when schools and the Education Ministry keep forcing us into a corner of job insecurity like this,” Choi said. She predicted that many workers will lose their jobs when local governments are given the authority to manage after-school classes, as will happen if the bill is passed.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Some parents made comments through SNS that they had to work from home due to the union’s strike on Friday, which caused them a huge inconvenience. Choi acknowledged and apologized for the inconvenience, but she said they had to act because of their poor working conditions, which will be difficult to solve in a timely manner amid the pandemic.

The shift to manage after-school child care through local governments is especially concerning, Choi said, because of financial concerns. “In rural cities in South Korea, their financial independence rates are about 20 percent,” she said. As a result, if local governments take control of managing the system, “students may get different quality of support in after-school child care classes depending on the financial condition of [different] cities.”

The nation’s fiscal self-reliance ratio is 45.2 percent, but that masks a wide range. According to data from Statistics Korea, Seoul’s fiscal self-reliance ratio stood at 76.1 percent, while five out of 17 metropolitan and provincial governments saw their ratio fall between 20 and 30 percent.

Since the union announced its strike, the Education Ministry has said that it will form a consultative group to figure out the best solution for both the government and the workers. But as the ruling Democratic Party, which has the power to enact legislation on its own, has said that it will pass the bill that the union strongly opposes, the ministry and union are not likely to make a deal soon. That means South Korea could see more strikes.

Lawmakers who proposed the bill said there is a need to increase the supply of the after-school child care system, which is used only by about 13.3 percent of all elementary school students. The system was implemented in 2004 and now about 200,000 students are enrolled, but still there are many students who have no access.

Lawmakers stated they proposed the bill to establish long-term and systematic policies that will result in an integrated all-day care system for students and parents.

Unlike the labor unions, the bills’ backers believe that local governments should become the main players to manage this system and provide care services tailored to the characteristics and conditions of each local government.

However, Choi said that local governments are likely to entrust the operation to private facilities and that the system will eventually become privatized. She also stressed that the majority of contract after-school child care workers could lose their jobs if they are no longer affiliated with the Office of Education.

The Education Ministry said that 7,980 of 12,211 after-school child care classes were opened as usual during the strike, but more classes could be closed if the union strikes again – and it is already discussing the possibility.

The union is going to wait about two weeks for the Education Ministry to prepare for talks and countermeasures. Union representatives say that the November 6 strike was a token strike and food service workers could also participate in upcoming strikes if necessary.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Schools are now open in South Korea, as the country has successfully controlled the virus. But not all students can take in-person classes at the same time. Attendance is capped at one-third of students for elementary and middle schools, and two-thirds for high schools, under guidelines issued by the Korean Disease Control and Prevention Agency and the Education Ministry. In the meantime, students are still taking online courses and they are likely to continue to take them until a vaccine is developed.

The local news media has called the striking workers teachers. But Choi said the media should identify their position clearly to avoid unfair public criticism: They are not regular teachers but contract workers, and thus in a more vulnerable position.