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The Opression WithinGab-jil towards members of the university community
Moon Sook-hyun  |
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승인 2015.03.02  14:12:01
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 “DO YOU know who I am?” Some ask this question rhetorically with disbelieving angry eyes. After asking the question, those people then usually proclaim their grand titles and names themselves. This “do you know who I am” card has been used by many people to gain the upper hand in a situation. It is the most representative case of gab-jil; a compound Korean word combining the word gab, meaning a being with superior power, and the suffix jil, meaning an act of doing. The word gab-jil refers to any wrongful acts committed by gab, the superior party, to eul, the subordinate weaker party. Gab-jil has been a hot issue lately, with the former Korean Airlines Director Jo Hyun-ah accused of harassing and insulting flight attendants. Yet, it is becoming evident that gab-jil is happening even in places where pursuit of truth and learning are supposed to be taking place: the university campus. Neither is life much better off campus for university students who are considered to be the ultimate rookies of the “real world.” What allows the gab to freely trample on the eul? What are the predicaments that members of the university community face?

Yeol-jeong pay: experience for sale
\100,000. This is supposedly the monthly wage of a person who worked for more than 12 hours a day. Someone posted on an online community site that \100,000 is what an apprentice for the designer Lee Sang-bong receives for working from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., including overtime pay. Even at a slight glance, the wage was way below the designated minimum wage at the time, which was \5,550. Although Lee apologized afterwards and declared that he will take any legal responsibilities if necessary, the society is still outraged at such exploitation of labor. As one of the most representative cases of yeol-jeong pay, this case demonstrates the decidedly eul position of aspiring college students in the job market.
Yeol-jeong pay, literally meaning “passion” pay in Korean, is a term that satirizes the commonly said phrase “if you have passion, you don’t need money.” It refers to situations in which labor, most commonly youth labor, is exploited by giving very low, if any wages. Most frequently faced by college students seeking experience and part time money, yeol-jeong pay has become prevalent in many job sectors. The main societal background that made yeol-jeong pay possible is the continuing unemployment crisis among the Korean youth. According to statistics released by Seoul Metropolitan Government, the unemployment rate of the youth aged from 15 to 29 living in Seoul has finally exceeded 10%, which is the highest rate since the IMF crisis of 1997. Such low demand for labor naturally leaves job applicants in the eul position in the job market. This leads to many college students desperately searching for any kind of experience or activities that they believe would be conducive to employment. An anonymous job applicant stated that, “Many students are willing to work as interns for hardly any pay, because many companies still favor those who have experience in a real working environment than those who do not. This phenomenon is not at all new to us.” Indeed, according to a survey conducted by an online job site Saramin, 27.2% of job applicants replied that they are “willing to apply for unpaid interns.” When asked why, 67.5% replied “so that I can have a real working experience” and 54.4% replied “so that I can get employed in a related working sector.” Evidently such trends and beliefs make job applicants take unpaid internships almost for granted. Such desperation is what makes yeol-jeong pay possible.
   Another factor that contributes to yeol-jeong pay is the system of apprenticeship in job sectors where real working experience is required. In such sectors, there is an abundance of aspiring applicants who wish to gain experience and know-how from the specialists who have years of experience in the working environment. Since apprentices and interns are supposed to “learn” from their mentors, many employers do not consider them to be actually hired. Rather, they are considered to be receiving education in return for their assistance. Hence the pay is unsurprisingly low in such areas of work. A similar situation is taking place within the extracurricular activities that many students participate in. Nowadays, corporations hold various opportunities for university students to build up their “specs”* by recruiting SNS reporters, “supporters,” student marketers and such. These kinds of activities usually involve advertising and improving a corporation’s image by making students accomplish “missions.” In return, students are promised benefits such as certificates, awards, money, and even extra points in the employment selection process.
On the surface, all looks well: it is a win - win for both parties. However, there is a loophole in this seemingly sound deal. Although many corporations promise students numerous benefits in return, a condition usually follows: only an “excellent” worker may receive whatever is promised. Therefore it is no surprise that in a survey taken by the Sisa Journal, 34% of students replied that “they suffered economic loss after the extracurricular activities” and only 61% replied that “they received all the benefits that was promised to them.” Thus basically four out of ten people replied that they did not receive all that was actually due to them. Again, such corporations are extracting ideas, time and effort from university students to promote their products and image, while not properly granting the promised benefits in return.
   The immorality of yeol-jeong pay is quite self-explanatory: to extract the most out of their labor at a very low cost employers are exploiting the urgent and desperate situations students are facing. Yeol-jeong pay is also illegal as the Minimum Wages Act dictates that employers must pay at least the minimum wage to all laborers. Also, the probation period that many employers commonly cite as the reason for absurdly low wages, cannot be applied to short term employees that work for less than a year. It is thus crucial that the eul, the employees, be mindful of their own rights. The government must also ensure that legal protection is in place for vulnerable employees and penalize businesses that do not follow the law. It is only through implementation of such measures that the eul, job applicants desperately searching for any kind of job openings, will be able to secure their rights. Effort and attention is required from all the related parties, the laborers, employers, and the government, in order to truly eradicate this exploitation of labor.
Graduate Students: students or slaves?
   The place where true academic pursuit takes place; this is the place that a long overlooked gab-jil is occurring. It is now within the university campus walls that gab-jil takes place. According to a survey taken by 2,354 students from 13 universities in “report on graduate students’ research environment” taken by the Presidential Youth Committee, 45.5% replied that “they have received some kind of wrongful treatment from their academic advisor.” In fact, there recently have been cases at Korea University and Seoul National University in which the academic advisor continuously sexually harassed his graduate student. In both cases it turned out that the students were very reluctant to report this treatment to the police. The “wrongful treatments” are not just limited to sexual harassment. In addition to personal attacks involving verbal, sexual harassment, “wrongful acts” included requiring students to assist in personal businesses, pressuring students for bribes, and infringement of copyrights to students’ own works. Although it is definitely not the case that the majority of academic advisors conduct such wrongful acts, it is evident that such acts are most likely occurring somewhere within the university. Kim E-jin (President, Students’ Union of Yonsei Graduate School) stated that, “I have heard of wrongdoings done to graduate students although none of them were officially recorded. It is nevertheless clear that Yonsei Graduate School students also face injustices.” What is more, 65.3% of those who received wrongful treatment replied that they “put up with the wrongful treatment.” Then, the natural question arises: why do the students keep their mouth shut?
   The answer lies in the overwhelming gab position that academic advisors have. To the students, academic advisors are their mentors, employers, and the key to their future careers, especially since academic advisors can choose certain graduate students to be their teaching/research assistants. Considering the fact that about 65% of graduate students are either TA or RAs and privileges that follow, it is not an exaggeration to say that academic advisors are virtually the students’ employers. Kim also stated that, “Graduate school students are not just students. They are also laborers in that they are assistants to the professor.” Furthermore, the assessment of a student’s thesis, which is a crucial factor for graduation, also lies in the hands of the academic advisor. This is why Kim stressed that, “A student must be willing to give up virtually everything in order to pursue legal action against his/her professor and disclose the problem to the press. Really everything.”
Another statistic worth noting is that 43.8% of graduate students who replied that they passed over wrongful treatment said they did so because they “felt like the problem would not be solved anyway.” An anonymous graduate student stated that, “since a professor is able to be back on the job quickly even if there are some problems with the student, it is a common notion among the students that reporting some wrongful acts done by the professor is only damaging to the student.” In fact, many universities have actually been known to hire back those who had been accused of sexual harassment. Many simply choose to resign before the situation gets bigger, which has no effect on their pension or severance pay. Kim also stated that, “As far as I know, there have been very few cases where the accused professors were legally punished. Also, the accused professors are often able to be back on their jobs quickly.” Such slap-on-the-wrist measures on the perpetrators are another problem that must be resolved.
   The most pressing matter at hand is to establish a system that will hear the voices of graduate students. Currently no organization exists where graduate students can file their complaints regarding these issues. Although there is a sexual counseling center at Yonsei University, an organization that is only dedicated to hearing injustices done to graduate students is nonexistent. Kim added that, “The students’ union of graduate school is quite different from that of the undergraduate. We do more of administrative work rather than campaigning and planning activities for the students’ rights. Therefore, virtually no organization exists within the school that can really be a voice for the students.” All signs indicate that an outlet for the students’ voices must be created.
YIC dormitory laborers lay off: who is at fault?
   Any Yonseian walking around the Sinchon campus would have noticed the numerous pinwheels positioned around the Underwood Hall. Some may be vaguely aware that the pinwheels were related to the issue regarding YIC dormitory laborers’ succession of employment. Yet not many students know exactly what the fuss is all about. The following is a brief account of what actually happened.
The controversy began when the service company Seantecs submitted a proposal planning to lay off 22 workers of the 72 cleaning and security workers at the YIC dormitory. Yonsei University then accepted Seantecs as the preferential negotiation company, which drew protests from the labor union and student community. Since then, the labor union and students have visited the Office of General Affairs numerous times in protest.
In the end, Yonsei University signed a contract with Seantecs on Dec. 29 that guaranteed succession of employment for all but on different working conditions. The cleaning laborers were to work in four-hour shifts while the security workers were to work for 12-hour shifts. The 19 workers who refused the meeting for renewal of labor contract on Dec. 31 were notified that their contract with Seantecs was over. A few days later, the fired workers’ entrance cards were deactivated and they were banned from entering the school. In protest, laborers went through an all-night sit-in demonstration in front of the Office of General Affairs starting on Jan. 14. Students likewise have joined in the workers’ fight for succession of employment without deterioration of working conditions by putting up pinwheels with supporting words for the workers. This event was led by the YIC Dormitory Labor Rights Guard, a group founded by students that lived in the YIC dormitory.
Then where does the lead to solving this conflict lie? The answers from the related parties differ. Lee In-sook, a fired worker stated that the only party that can truly solve this problem was the school. Lee believed that the cause behind this conflict was Yonsei University’s selection of the lowest bidder as the service company. According to Lee, “I originally thought that the source of the problem rested with the service company, but now I think differently. It was because the school kept requiring lowered service charges that the service company stated that it had to reduce costs. Therefore it is the school that can truly solve this problem” On the other hand, the Purchase Team of Yonsei University refutes the assertion that Yonsei University chose the lowest bidder as its service company and that the school can solve this problem. Son Sung-mun (Manager, Yonsei University Purchase Team) has stated, “The school did not choose the lowest bidder in the selection of the service company. The selection process of the service company was done in a competitive bid through a fair process.” Son further stated that the “labor union should consult with the service company rather than the school to reach a compromise.”
With diverging statements regarding this issue, both the school and the labor union currently show no sign of narrowing their different stances. The school has claimed issues of financial constraint as the reason for lowered service charges, but the workers currently have no intention of stepping back. Lee has stated, “The school is currently building a \90 billion parking lot, but it says it does not have money to give rightful wages to several workers. We are not highly paid people. It does not take much money to hire us.” On the other hand Son stated that, “All the service companies who participated in the bid stated that the number of laborers working at YIC dormitories must decrease. If all of them with their professional means of estimating said so, then it must be true.”
   With such conflicting positions regarding this issue, it is at first glance hard to see who is at fault. Yet upon closer analysis, it is clear that this issue is another form of the school and the service company’s gab-jil towards laborers. The clearest indicator of this gab-jil is that Yonsei University did not follow the “service worker working conditions protection guideline” that was issued by the Ministry of Labor. The guideline was issued to ensure that the labor rights of the workers employed by service companies be guaranteed. Yet, since the guidelines have no legal binding effect, out of the 160 private universities investigated by the Ministry of Labor in November 2014, none obeyed the guidelines. Yonsei University was no different. Although Son stated that the guidelines were taken into consideration during the bid for service companies, the wages of the laborers, which he said was about \6,200, were far lower than the market wage price of \7,050, which is the wage standard that the guideline requires companies to give. Besides, if the school had actually followed the guidelines, then a negotiation on the workers’ wages and labor conditions itself would not have been possible. This is because the guidelines dictate that the school specify in contract with the service companies that the labor conditions will not deteriorate.
Furthermore, the labor conditions are absurdly low for the YIC laborers under the renewed contract. In 2014, there were 39 cleaning workers for a 4,500 people scale dormitory. The Korea Building Maintenance Association states that 900m2 is the optimal area of space for one cleaning worker. Considering the fact that the workers do not clean the students’ rooms, the actual area that the workers have to clean is about 48,466.1157m2, excluding the dormitory rooms. Thus, one cleaning worker had to clean about 1,242 m2. A fired cleaning laborer also stated that one cleaning laborer had to clean five floors of the building. In response, Son stated that “The service companies probably know best because it is their work and they have professional means of estimating the number of workers needed for the job.” Yet, according to Lee, Seantecs has not disclosed the standards on which they made such decisions, which leaves room for doubt regarding the veracity of its assessment. By reducing the number of cleaning laborers even more, the working conditions will become inevitably harder for the remaining laborers. The same goes for the security guards of YIC who now have to work in two shifts rather than three.

   All that is clear in the current situation is that the problem can only be solved through meetings with the school and the workers. The school, as the original contractor, should not wield its superior position to simply silence the workers. The tyranny of gab should, out of all places, not take place at universities, because after all, Yonsei is a school not a corporation. Yonsei should stop ignoring the protests of the workers and accept the demands for meetings and therefore allow for a quick resolution of this conflict. Kim Mi-hyang, a fired worker, said, “As one of the prestigious SKY universities, we hope that Yonsei will fulfill its role as one of the leading universities in Korea.

*                 *                 *

   It is a shame that members of the university community are targets of gab-jil, let alone that gab-jil actually happens within the university campus. Perhaps some of us have willfully ignored these silent injustices because they may not be directly related to us. Yet as can be seen in the article, gab-jil is not acted out just by the chae-bol in airplanes. The situations that angered so many people in news headlines are happening right now. Possibly to people that you know intimately. It is time that the society, and most of all the gab realized that other people’s rights are not to be stepped on. Some may believe that the eul will forever be trampled, but as the headlines tell us, not forever will they stay quiet. The gab should watch their steps for their own good.


* Specs: A term referring to a wide range of indicators that can prove a job applicant’s ability in the job market 
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