The Koreas | Society | East Asia

Part-time Workers in South Korea Out of Luck

With the number of new cases rising, employers are asking part-time workers to furlough indefinitely. 

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Part-time Workers in South Korea Out of Luck
Credit: Pixabay

As South Korea enters into its toughest battle yet with the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more part-timer workers are being furloughed by their employers as the government has tightened restrictions and raised the social distancing level. 

Public health experts have been urging the government to raise the social distancing level to three, at least temporarily, to prevent the rapid spread of the virus nationwide. But the government has hesitated to do so because of the economy.

With more than 60 percent of cases confirmed in Seoul and the greater Seoul area consistently in the recent outbreak, the Seoul, Gyeonggi and Incheon governments announced a ban on gatherings of more than five people as of Wednesday, but the public has questioned how effectively such a measure can slow the spread.

While the government and ruling Democratic Party consider releasing a stimulus package for those, especially small business owners, that have been most affected in the last two months, young part-timer workers in the 20s are out of luck. They are not regular employees and are not running their own businesses, they are falling in-between government efforts.

“I worked at the billiard room as a part-timer from September to November but I was asked to stop working [by] my boss indefinitely as we don’t know when the government can loosen its restrictions,” said Jeon Yoo-sung, 25, a university student, in an interview with The Diplomat. 

According to data from Albamon, one of the most popular online job sites, 52 percent of 471 employers answered that their number of employees has decreased since the pandemic began.

Jeon is attending a university in the greater Seoul area and had to work to pay tuition while taking online courses in the fall semester. Depending on the courses, university students sometimes were able to take classes in person at their schools but most of courses have taken place online under the Education Ministry’s suggestion.

Even though many students were taking online-only courses, their tuition remained the same. A few schools offered scholarships of around $100 to students, but average tuition for private Korean universities is about $4,000, and $2,000 for national universities.

Students often took part-time jobs to help cover the costs of education, but the pandemic has frozen the employment market, limiting opportunities. 

“After I was asked [by] my employer to furlough indefinitely, it took me more than a month to find a job opportunity to work at a convenience store but it was for only 8 working hours a week,” Jeon said. 

The revenue generated by small businesses has decreased more than 20 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the data from Korea Credit Data.

While some countries — like the U.K. and the United States — have begun vaccination campaigns, South Korea’s plans are unclear at the moment. Meanwhile, some are demanding that the government tighten restrictions temporarily to control the spread but at the same time to refrain from unclear, ambiguous, and ineffective measures.

“The main point of the government’s restrictions is for making people not to gather [with] each other to prevent the spread of the virus. But I am not sure how they’ve worked,” Jeon said, adding that people can gather if they want as most facilities are open until 9 p.m.

Other university students whose workplaces, such as bars, sports facilities, private educational institutions and fitness centers, have been closed due to the government’s restrictions almost have the same issues as Jeon

The central government and local governments once provided assistance, which was called “emergency disaster relief fund,” and an extra stimulus package for reviving the economy is expected but it is unclear who will be eligible for the support. Economic experts suggest, however, that university students may not be able to get support for tuition or living expenses from the government unless it specifically decides to do so.

“It would be better if there is a guarantee that I can work at some point but I don’t know how to handle this as we all don’t know when this outbreak ends,” Jeon said. 

On Tuesday, the government ordered all ski resorts and winter sports facilities to be closed from December 24 to January 3 to prevent the resurgence of the virus during Christmas and the end-of-the-year holidays.

Students who usually worked at winter sports resorts in the winter break now have to look elsewhere for work. There aren’t many options.

“We are not asking the government to loosen restrictions so that we can work at some places in winter. We just don’t want the government to hesitate to take its harshest measures while we’ve been dealing with it without a deadline,” Jeon said.