Jeong Hoon Park, Head of Rider Union.
“Subway package delivery!”
An old man shouted as he entered the McDonald’s store at which I worked. It seemed that he was delivering something for the store. Subway delivery hires mostly senior citizens because subway rides are free for those aged above 65. The payment is not that good It does not pay very well. I looked up the internet and found that the delivery fee within Seoul is around 5,000 to 10,000 won. The current minimum wage is 8,350 won, which means you could earn less than the minimum wage if you deliver one package in an hour. That would probably be why they say they do it for exercise not for money. But climbing stairs with heavy packages on both hands is not necessarily a good workout for old people.
My colleague rider got a job at McDonald’s because he needed insurance after his business failed. McDonald’s is one of few companies that provide insurance, minimum wage and legal break time. He got his insurance from McDonald’s but works another job in the morning.
A lady who cooks burgers in the store comes to work after sending her child to school and husband to work and goes home when the child comes home. She calls her job a ‘side job.’ A university student who works on weekends come to work to earn living expenses while preparing to land a ‘real job.’
Albas Not Eligible for Severance Pay
Koreans call part-time jobs ‘arbeit,’ which later was shortened as ‘alba.’ Alba also refers to people who have a part-time job. At first, the word ‘albasaeng’ was more commonly used. It means a student who has a part-time job. This implies that Koreans perceive part-time jobs as temporary jobs for students in their late teens or early 20s because they are obviously not a real job.
But I have seen albas in various ages as I worked. Not only the age of workers, but also their reason of getting a part-time job are becoming more various diverse. They do not work fixed hours from nine to six.
The benefits of regular jobs such as incentives or tuition fees for children are unthinkable for part-time workers. Not only just our society, but also employers and even workers themselves do not call their job a job, because it is only an alba. Many think part-time jobs as temporary work for those who lost their job, rather than an actual job.
Jobs of the unemployed, jobs that are not a job — this oxymoron creates various problems. All workers, whether they are part-time workers or contract workers, should be subject to the Labor Standards Act and enjoy their right under the law. The same goes for albas. But if the rights are to be guaranteed, employers should take appropriate actions or workers should ask for them. Albas cannot raise their voice claim their rights for the fear that they would lose their job if they ask for their rights. They are often bombarded with wilds words from employers when they assert their own rights.
“Albas are not eligible for severance pay. It should be me if anyone gets paid because I am the one who taught you how to work.”
“Albas don’t get paid holidays. I will report you to the police for impersonation if you act as if you are a regular worker.”
These remarks are, of course, unlawful. This means employers are ignorant of the laws. Albas can and should receive annual paid leaves and severance pay. Every worker receives at least one holiday per working month regardless of their period of service. Those who worked for more than a year receive at least 15 holidays per year. All workers who worked more than 15 hours for over a year should receive severance pay. There is no article that says albas are an exception.
Then why do employers say such unlawful things? Why are there so many cases where albas do not enjoy basic legal rights? It is because there is ‘power’ at play that makes the unlawfulness natural.
Moreover, albas are too vulnerable to fight against the power. Those who have a job that is not a job do not have a cause to fight for their work. Not a lot of people fight to maintain a temporary status from which they will one day break out.
Are There People Who Would Fight for Work, Not A Job?
Large conglomerates in Korea try not to engage in illegal acts. But their franchises do not comply with responsibilities designated by the labor laws. If issues such as overdue wages or violation of the minimum wage arise, large conglomerates take a step back, saying that the responsibility is on franchise operators. Also, most franchise stores are small and not obliged to pay nighttime and holiday work allowances to employees, as the rule is applied to businesses with at least five employees.
In fact, most franchises are closely related to the head office. Sales from franchises is included in the sales of the head office. Workers wear a uniform of the brand, which is why customers recognize them as a part of the entire group.
In economics, the law of supply and demand applies in labor market. According to the theory, there should be few workers if wages, the price of labor markets, are low. But Korea’s labor market is always overcrowded even though wages are low. Workers who cannot maintain their livelihood without labor income exchange their time with minimum wages no matter how low they are. If they cannot afford their rent, transportation or communication, they willfully exchange their time with the minimum, or even lower wages.
There are numerous factors that drive out workers to low-wage jobs. The number of stable jobs decreased. It takes longer for the youth to land a job as they should spend time and money to build impressive credentials on their resume. Older workers are laid off. Irregular workers cannot make ends meet with their income. Older citizens have not saved enough for their later life.
Economists would say it is because “the minimum wage is higher than the price where supply meets demand.” However, behind workers flocking to lower-than-minimum-wage jobs is the social structure where the number of jobs is decreasing, and technological changes are ever speeding up. This is how the ‘platform,’ a system that utilizes the unemployed, was born.
Platform Labor That Allows Pay Cuts
Recently, there was a controversy over zero-hour contracts in the UK. With a zero-hour contract, business owners pay wages to workers by hour without setting fixed work hours. McDonald’s is the company that utilizes this contract the most in the UK.
Most Korean franchises sign the same type of contract with workers. Korean business owners even took it to the next level. If their store is not that busy, they send workers home and cut their wages. Clearly, this is illegal.
However, technology and capital are driving this to the legal domain by giving birth to the so-called ‘platform labor.’ As smartphones have become ubiquitous, phone apps started organizing labor and connect workers with customers.
Platform businesses have jobless persons in queue at a station called ‘platform’ and send them away when a train called ‘work’ arrives. Deliveries are sent to 100 delivery persons on an app every second, and one of them gets the job.
If capital hired irregular workers for two years and alba workers for three to six months before abandoning them, platforms use workers by second. Alba labor was a mechanism to utilize the labor of the unemployed in various industries and maintain the franchise industry. Now, the platform industry utilizes time of everyone who is available for work and is a lot bigger than the franchise industry.
Head offices shifted hiring responsibilities to store owners, but platform businesses use a strategy of not employing workers at all. Because of this, business owners, not those who do the actual work, enjoy the status of a worker. Various obligations and restrictions set by the labor laws are not applied to this type of work.
The platform labor also changed my workplace. McDonald’s used to manage workers by setting weekly schedules, but many businesses assign work through apps nowadays. The more workers log onto apps, the fiercer competitions get to score a job.
In a way, the labor market for the unemployed is going through large-scale innovation. Job seekers can find a job by logging onto an app. Platforms created a ‘login job,’ and are generating a lot of business owners who are, in fact, alba workers.
Capital utilizes this change well enough, but the government and social systems are not catching up with it. It is evident when we look at the welfare policies for the unemployed. Under the assumption that full employment is still possible, they tell the unemployed to ‘try harder finding a job or learn new skills.’ Unemployment benefits are given to those who meet the requirements. Beneficiaries send out their resume to companies with which they stand a low chance of scoring a job only to prove that they are looking for a job.
Should We Allow A Few To Monopolize 21st Century’s Oil?
As slaves liberated from feudal lords became slaves of capitalism under the title of ‘workers,’ the future of albas who earned the title of ‘business owners’ does not look so rosy. Business owners should take all responsibilities themselves. They need to prepare a motorcycle, a means of production, if they want to do delivery. Businesses take responsibilities for workers in case of an accident, but business owners must bear the repair cost and medical expenses on their own. As Airbnb becomes the largest lodging business in the world without owning any land, delivery platforms can maintain the business without owning a single motorcycle or taking responsibilities for accidents.
In that sense, it is not appropriate to regard today’s platform businesses as ‘innovation.’ It is especially inappropriate from the perspective of workers. It is only an extension of outdated ways.
Platform businesses need data to have a competitive edge. It is the customers who create the data, and workers are also customers as they produce data as well. They pay for their communication to log onto platforms, which is why platform businesses can assign jobs to them. On the other side of the exciting data economy are riders having treacherous rides on their motorcycle for to finish delivery.
Platform businesses that profit off everyone’s data are avoiding the responsibilities for platform workers. It is important to establish legal systems to protect workers, but what is more important is to create social discussions on how to impose responsibilities to platform businesses.
The world was not able to prevent monopolization of oil by a handful of countries and oil giants. But should we let the same thing happen with data, the oil of the 21st century? Platform businesses are monopolizing profits from data, and those who produce data gain no profit at all.
Artificial intelligence technology advancing with big data will affect a lot of jobs, not to mention platform jobs. Should we fight against it? Should we fight for jobs that are dangerous or harmful to humans? What do we need to give those jobs to robots? We need to start a discussion on this before it is too late.