KOREA IS experiencing one of the hottest summers ever, with a record-breaking temperature of 41 degrees in Hongcheon and 39.6 degrees in Seoul on Aug. 1. The scorching heat has been severely detrimental. According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 people have died from heat-related causes, such as heatstroke, heat exhaustion and heat cramps. In addition, there have been around 4,000 cases of patients who have suffered from heat-related illnesses. Although the heat affects everyone, laborers who work outdoors are at a greater risk. According to The Hankyoreh, one-fourth of the patients with heat-related illnesses have been sick from working outdoors. Given these conditions, the government is quickly revising policies to aid the heat-vulnerable population to combat the continuously rising temperature.
The heat-vulnerable workers
With the heat wave maintaining an unusually high temperature in Korea—having once peaked to approximately 40 degrees—jobs that require workers to stay outdoors for long hours have become unbearably strenuous. The heat-vulnerable laborers involve construction workers, security guards, parking attendants, delivery men and street cleaners. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, these workers have to live through arduous hours in this merciless summer. To prevent serious sunburns, workers that are required to be outside equip themselves with arm warmers, long sleeved shirts, long pants, gloves and hats to minimize skin exposure. For instance, the Severance Hospital parking attendants, who must stand outdoors for the majority of their working hours, wear orange uniforms that cover their skin from head to toe.
The Yonsei Annals asked one of the parking attendants about any policy changes that occurred in response to the extreme weather. He replied, “We often have one-hour shifts, with two people working at two different entry sites, but because of the heat this summer, a new policy has been implemented that enables us to rotate once in the middle to get some air conditioning inside the building.”
However, not all outside employees have been lucky with heat reforms. Recently, a McDonald’s delivery man, Park Jeong-hoon, has been conducting a one-man protest against McDonald’s. His demands include a \100 pay raise for working in the heat and modifications to the summer uniform.
In an interview with the Annals, Park mentioned, “There is the sun over our head, the heat from the asphalt under our feet, and heat and fumes from cars and buses.” Regarding the uniform, another McDonald’s rider, Kim Deok-young, told the Annals, “McDonald’s is the only fast food chain that requires their workers to wear knee pads. They are not of good quality, and this makes it even harder for us to work in the hot weather.” Kim added that expectations of riders in the heat are too unreasonable, “Some riders have to deliver up to 30 to 40 orders a day (in approximately 8 hours) in the heat, which is above the average of about 24.” Furthermore, Kim mentioned, “Riders don’t get enough rest, as we are told to do miscellaneous work once we get back.” A \100 rise may not seem like a large sum of money; however, Kim views this as an implicit message for the company “to treat them in a humane manner.” Park told the Annals that unfortunately, he has yet to receive a response from the McDonald’s.
While providing worker accommodations can be out of respect for the inconveniences that workers face, it is also necessary for protecting the workers’ health conditions. In an interview with the Annals, Jeon Jay, the Chief of the Department of Education and Communication at the Korea Construction Workers’ Union, disclosed the working conditions of construction workers in the summer.
Jeon mentioned a survey conducted in July by the Korea Construction Workers’ Union, in which 46.2% of the construction workers replied that they worked without any breaks. For those that do get to rest, only about 3 out of 10 laborers would do so in places that completely blocked the sunlight. Furthermore, 23.7% of the workers were not aware of the guidelines set by the government that stated that employers should allow workers with some resting time, a resting place, and water.
On this issue, Jeon commented, “The government measures are barely being kept” and that they are “merely a lip-service.” She further elaborated, “There is a fine up to \50 million and imprisonment up to 5 years if companies violate the laws of resting time and space. Under this law, 90% of the construction companies would be subject to punishment. However, there have been no cases in which companies have actually been punished.” As such, there are many voices of concern towards the effectiveness of countermeasures that the government has taken in response to the heat.
While many construction workers are struggling from the inefficacy of the policies counteracting the heat wave, there are some companies that are implementing appropriate measures. Park Ha-won, the construction senior manager at Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., spoke to the Annals about Daelim’s own set of internal rules that were created due to the heat. Park mentioned that the company implemented a new “outreach service” where office workers go to the construction sites in person and supervise whether the duty hours are being kept and whether workers are provided with cold drinks or “ice vests.”
He added how on the days where a heat wave warning is announced, all laborers are notified via text message, and are provided with drinks and resting time. According to Park, the ordinary labor time of a construction worker is about 8 hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. excluding break time and lunch time. But on days with extreme heat, a resting time of 10 minutes for every 50 minutes of labor is encouraged and workers are exempt from working between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. While companies other than Daelim have similarly implemented such internal guidelines, laborer-friendly policies are still absent in certain working environments as mentioned in Jeon’s interview.
The government and companies’ role as a sun-block
With the unexpected heat, the government has been urgently revising laws to address the dire concerns. This year, President Moon Jae-in has officially declared the heat wave as a natural disaster. The government has attempted to reduce the heat’s impact on the public by enacting measures such as temporary reductions in progressive electricity bills. In particular, to help outdoor workers, the Ministry of Labor provided a guideline last December, stating that business owners should allow laborers working outdoors under direct heat to rest from 10 to 15 minutes per hour, and that laborers should be provided shaded resting areas. However, according to Labor Today, the Ministry of Labor is not supervising the implementation of these guidelines nor are the guidelines legally binding. The unprecedented heat is thus being a burden not only to workers but also to the policy makers, whose role is to work as a “sun-block” for the citizens.
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The extreme weather has become a life-threatening matter this summer in Korea. Although everyone is vastly affected by the heat, those who work outdoors have little options to escape the heat. Accordingly, worker conditions outdoors are brought to the forefront of discussion. Unions and workers have prompted the government and companies to respond to their concerns. However, the speed at which these reforms happen are questionable as enforcement measures appear absent in many cases. With expectations of continuous heat waves caused by climate change, the government will have to continuously revisit how this new type of natural disaster is to be considered.