IN THE first-floor lobby of the Underwood Hall, red and white leaflets of all sizes—handwritten and printed—are pasted across the walls. Shopping bags stuffed with personal possessions lie about here and there. Silver picnic mats carpet the floor, serving as a sitting area for a group of people in red vests. These are the cleaning laborers of Yonsei University and the union members from the western Seoul chapter of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU). They have commenced an indefinite sit-down strike in the Underwood Hall lobby since Jan. 16, protesting against the university’s structural reformation.
At the end of December 2017, Yonsei University enforced a structural reform among the janitorial and maintenance staff body. From 714 in 2017 to 667 in January 2018, the number of these staff has decreased, with 31 of them having vacated their posts for having reached the retirement age of 70. The university has announced that, as part of the structural reform, it will fill the vacancies with temporary part-time workers on three-hour shifts. The labor force stood up against this decision, stating that it is a violation of the janitorial and maintenance staff’s rights to live. From Jan. 16, workers have been continuing a strike in the main hall, demonstrating their strong determination to deliver the message of resistance against the reform.
Currently, the Yonsei headquarter has hired five part-time workers from Cobi Company, a company that provides cleaning services to their contractors, with the purpose of stationing them as janitors for the GS Caltex Research Hall and the Industry-University Research Center. The KPTU western Seoul chapter, a union in which the majority of the janitorial and maintenance staff of Yonsei are members, is physically blocking the Cobi workers from entering the two buildings. Hence, the school is presently using a van to facilitate the transport of the five workers to their workplace.
For weeks, red banners have been covering the campus, and indignant voices of the janitorial and maintenance staff have echoed across the campus. The headquarter of Yonsei University and the janitorial and maintenance staff are holding distinctly opposing views on this issue, with each side being resolute in their opinions. The upcoming sections of this article will explore their arguments in detail.
“Structural reform is inevitable at a time of financial crisis”
One argument strongly put forward by Yonsei University is that the structural reformation is needed in order to relieve its financial pressures. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Kim Woo-sung, Vice President for the General Affairs Department of Yonsei University, claimed that the structural reform is inevitable when considering the continuously rising costs of labor against the university’s rather unchanging amount of income. “Tuition fees have been fixed for nine years and so has the entrance quota. Meanwhile, the cost of labor is continuously increasing, and has eventually taken up 14.1% of the university’s total expense last year. In order to be efficient with our spending, we decided to not fill the vacancy of the retired contract employees with permanent employees.”
To this, the labor union refutes that Yonsei University does possess “the ability to pay for the vacancy of the laborers.” During a phone interview with the Annals, Choi Da-hye, Deputy Organizational Chief for the KPTU western Seoul chapter, pointed out that Yonsei University is one of the richest universities in Korea and has access to reserve funds, estimated to be around ₩500 billion. “What Yonsei University is claiming sounds like arguments coming from a business corporation rather than a university. Yonsei University is not a corner shop. It is a prestigious institution for education that claims to strive for solving social problems. I find it ironic that they are choosing to neglect the voices of the socially disadvantaged,” Choi said. She claims that the problem arises because Yonsei University is trying to adhere to last year’s budget and not use its reserve funds, even though the legal minimum wage has increased this year.
Regarding the ₩500 billion reserve fund, Vice President Kim for General Affairs asserts that these funds do not solely exist for the use of the Sinchon Campus. According to the data provided by the Yonsei Budget Team, the number stated by the KPTU is a sum of all the funds from the Sinchon Campus, Wonju Campus, Severance Hospital, and Wonju Severance Hospital, of which only 64% is reserved for Sinchon. Furthermore, Yonsei claims that the reserve fund is divided into specific categories such as research, construction, and scholarship, and can thus be used only for the purpose it was first planned for. Hence, the school cannot withdraw funds from one category for the use of another, namely the labor costs. Kim explains, “A substantial portion of these funds are donations from organizations and alumni. If the school uses these funds for purposes other than the donators’ requests, they may withdraw their donations.”
The increase in minimum wage in 2018 was yet another source of heated debate, addressed in the interviews of both KPTU western Seoul chapter Deputy Organizational Chief Choi and General Affairs’ Vice President Kim. The legal minimum wage in Korea has increased from ₩6,540 per hour in 2017 to ₩7,530 per hour in 2018. As a result, the wage of the cleaning laborers at Yonsei will increase from ₩7,780 to potentially ₩8,800 to ₩9,000 per hour, according to Kim’s predictions.
Choi emphasized that the minimum wage increase is “a socially bound promise.” “The school keeps arguing that the cleaning laborers’ wage has nearly doubled over the past ten years and that this is an immense financial burden for them. Although it is true that their wages have increased, it still rests within the given range of the minimum wage. It is a little upsetting because it is not as if this wage is an amount substantial enough to change the janitors’ lives.”She further stated that she believes Yonsei is viewing the cleaning laborers as people who get paid “the easy way,” receiving relatively high salaries for doing work that does not require much effort. Referring to Seoul National University (SNU)—which recently changed its entire janitorial and maintenance staff from non-permanent to permanent employees—as an example, Choi expressed her wish that Yonsei would acknowledge its janitors as equal members of the community.
On the other hand, Vice President Kim for General Affairs strongly denied the minimum wage increase as the cause of the structural reform. “Yonsei University has paid its janitors around ₩1,000 above the minimum wage for several years. It does not make logical sense for us to suddenly cut down the labor force because of a minimum wage increase that occurs every year.” As for the comparison to SNU, Kim emphasized that Yonsei University is a private university unlike SNU. “SNU is a public university that is funded by the government. It is easy for them to do that because the government requests them to do so, and provides financial support. Yonsei, being a private institution, does not receive any financial aid from the government. This comparison is unfair.”
“Labor intensity is getting worse”
Financial struggles are not the only problem for Yonsei, so it seems. “Labor intensity is getting worse because the school is not hiring workers to fill in the vacancy created by their retirement,” claimed Oh Jae-ha (Sr., Dept. of Sociology), a member of Yonsei University Common Measures Committee for the Resolution of Non-Permanent Labor Problems. By cutting down the labor body, workers need to finish their tasks with a smaller number of people compared to before the reformation.” If the reformation proceeds, the labor body will contract, which will lead to a greater labor intensity for each remaining worker. “Janitorial and maintenance staff’s duties are not just limited to cleaning and guarding the buildings. For example, security guards not only guard buildings, but they are also the ones who take initial response to emergencies that occur on campus, such as a fire. Moreover, they do students’ favors, such as helping those who have lost their possessions. Without enough labor, students are the ones who are going to suffer.” Oh stated that the growing labor intensity will render negative effects to not only the workers, but also the Yonsei students.
“This is not true,” contended Kim, the vice president for General Affairs, in the interview with the Annals. As mentioned in the previous section, Yonsei University is going through a serious aggravation in their finance. “Because of our budget crisis, we were brainstorming various ways in which we can cut our spending, and we arrived at a conclusion that the least we can do is to reduce the number of cleaners and security guards,” said Kim. He added, “However, we are not giving any disadvantage to the remaining workers—their payment will not be reduced, we will give a guarantee of the work until the age 70, and we are not increasing their work intensity in any way.” Kim additionally asserted, “right now, workers from the Federation of the Korean Trade Union are doing more work to fill in the vacancy. They agreed with us to do so because the workload is practicable. Moreover, we are also giving them overtime pay, so they are actually appreciating this offer.”
Kim also talked about the unmanned security services. In 2015, with the support of KT company, the university set up computerized security services in the basement of the Office of Library & Information Technology Services building. This system enables an easy security examination for all buildings in the Sinchon campus, as CCTVs are situated in their every corner. “If you lose something, you can just go to the basement and ask,” says Kim. Kim says this technology enables the school to office its buildings without a need for a large labor body, as well as reduce the labor intensity for the workers.
However, Choi of KPTU strongly disagreed with the school’s claim as stated by Kim, the Vice President for the General Affairs Department of Yonsei University. She asserted, “currently in the Amphitheater and the Daewoo Hall, where the vacancies of retirement workers are not yet filled, the place is overflowing with garbage.” Oh also claimed, “Last year, when there was a fire in the Underwood Hall, the school was slow in dealing with the problem because there were no workers in the Hall. I believe it was a security guard who happened to be early for work that found out about the fire and reported it.” Because there were insufficient workers assigned to the building, workers from other buildings had to go through intense labor, and students’ lives were also put to danger. According to Oh, it is accidents as such that questions Yonsei University’s claim of needing no additional workers.
“Graduate students are having to clean?”
The issue of labor intensity has proved to be relevant to even third parties of the issue, such as the student body and faculty, as the strikes have led to certain rumors of graduate students having to clean the laboratories of the GS Caltex Research Hall. Additionally, the regular employees of the school are having to clean the abandoned buildings instead of the full-time cleaning employees who are on strike. Although Vice President Kim confirmed that it is true that regular employees are having to clean the buildings, he stated that it is only because of the current status regarding the protest. He further claimed that professors are in fact voluntarily suggesting to clean their own offices to cut down on labor costs because they are aware of the university’s financial struggles.
As for the rumor surrounding the graduate students, Kim strongly denied it, asserting that no such thing has happened. On the other hand, KPTU Deputy Organizational Chief Choi revealed that during a conference meeting, school officials indirectly suggested that graduate and undergraduate students could clean their places to compensate for the lack of laborers. Choi stated, “Of course it is a common manner to clean after yourself. However, this situation is different. The school reached this conclusion of not retaining total employment because they are trying to cut back on the number of janitorial and maintenance staff, not because they are trying to encourage common manners.”
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This is not the first dispute between Yonsei University and its janitorial and maintenance staff. There have been numerous strikes and boycotts over the previous years and their frequency is a clear evidence of a serious problem within the communication system between the school and its faculty. It is apparent that this issue is entangled in several complications such as financial and welfare matters. Finding an immediate solution will not be easy. Although Yonsei and its janitors are standing in opposite sides, both are arguing for at least one similar reason: a better Yonsei. We should not let an institution of higher education that promotes social harmony and development become a place of dispute and fury. What seems necessary more than ever are “real” communication and thoughtful understanding between the two groups. Only then will the red banners be removed and students be able to walk through a campus free of conflict.