This year, a young woman who worked as a web designer for a large Internet lecture company committed suicide because she could not stand the pressure at work. She was forced to work overtime and suffered from bullying in the workplace. To deal with these issues, a union strives to protect the interests and rights of young workers. It is the “Youth Community Union,” the first labor union of Korea by a specific generation. The Argus met Kim Byung-chul, a chairperson of the Youth Community Union, to interview him about his beliefs and goals.
The Argus: Please introduce yourself.
Kim Byung-chul (Kim): Hello, I am Kim Byung-chul, the 5th chairperson of the Youth Community Union. I have been working as the chairman since February this year, starting a two-year term.
The Argus: Can you tell us about the Youth Community Union?
Kim: The Youth Community Union was founded in March 2010. It is a generational labor union voluntarily created by young people to improve our labor rights. The Youth Union is a union that anyone aged 15 to 39 can join, regardless of the type of employment like employees, the unemployed, temporary workers and permanent workers.
The number of union members at the time of its founding was around 60, but this year, the number has steadily increased to about 1,000. Plus, including support members over the age of 40 who give a lot of love and support to the Youth Community Union, there are about 2,100 people.
The Argus: Please describe the ongoing and evolving activities of the Youth Community Union.
Kim: Our activities vary from season to season. Nonetheless, generally speaking, we do planning work, governance activities and campaigns to stabilize employment and guarantee labor rights for young workers.
One of our latest representative activities was related to the recent death of a worker due to a poor environment and overwork in drama production. We complained with the victim’s family to the company and made a space for negotiation. In response, the company made an apology and compensated for the mistakes. Through these activities, we have been taking action to inform and improve the real world that young people are working in.
In addition to planning projects, we form partnerships with local governments and negotiate with the government. For instance, in 2014, we spoke to the Minimum Wage Council on behalf of young workers for the first time.
The Argus: What is the differentiation between the Youth Community Union and other unions?
Kim: The existing unions are supposed to follow a very complex and strict set of rules to form an agenda. Thus, there are some formalized parts. On the other hand, the Youth Community Union takes specific action for a case and carries out immediate and flexible activities.
I think it is the most appealing part for the young people to be able to work together. Whether you are working from one industry or another, whether you are a temporary or full-time worker, you can still be a member of the Youth Community Union. That is a core value of our union.
The Argus: Is there any special reason that you have been a member of the union since turning 18 years old?
Kim: I have done a lot of part-time work as a telemarketer and a staff at a cafe and hair salon. The injustice I felt in my work is nothing compared to those who visit us, but I have actually had unpaid wages and experienced emotional abuse at work. These are daily challenges faced by young workers, so I wanted to correct them. Meanwhile, in 2010, I met a member of the Youth Community Union and he introduced it to me. I was attracted by the new labor movement.
The Argus: What is the meaning of your slogan, “Raise changes in your workplace?”
Kim: With the regime being replaced and a new era coming, I think it is time to acknowledge the current working conditions of the youth and make actual changes in the workplace. Thus, I decided to set this slogan to produce tangible results on improving the working environment for young people. Also, it is important to develop real problem-solving skills at this point, almost a decade after the union was founded. It implies not just solving one case, but also having the ability to work with the government to create a channel of negotiation. It would be better to bring about social change.
The Argus: What was the most impressive activity?
Kim: I was most impressed when the minimum hourly wage for this year was set at 7,530 won (US$6.71) last year. For this, we participated in the Minimum Wage Committee as a representative of the workers’ party and tried to increase the minimum hourly wage by negotiating with other parties. After the wage increase was confirmed, I felt very excited and saw it as a great achievement.
Also, in the early days of the union’s existence, I was very proud and felt rewarded when I accomplished even something small. For example, there was a case in which the head office of a large cafe failed to pay part-time workers a state holiday allowance. After remedying the situation, the victim came to us and told us that the headquarters agreed to pay billions of won to all of the victims. I think these results gave us the power to stay active.
The Argus: What has been the hardest part of your work on behalf of the union?
Kim: The biggest and most realistic problem is that we do not have enough budget, given the overall business activities that we have and the missions we have been granted. The situation is especially bad for the branches. It takes a lot of money to keep up the labor movement, and I think this is a problem that cannot be solved at once. We will try to continue to expand our organization to address this problem.
I also felt that the existing political structure is limited to reflecting the voice of young workers. So we feel frustrated when we have insufficient results or our expectations are unmet because of established politics.
The Argus: What are the problems that need to be improved in the working environment of the youth?
Kim: The idea of a lifetime job, which was a popular concept for the older generation, has become obsolete for the younger generation. These days, young people are in a situation where they often have to move from one job to another. Thus, while policies for improving the working environment are important, serious consideration on a national level needs to be given regarding how to help unemployed youth.
In addition, within the workplace, powerful measures are urgently needed to eliminate any type of harassment and violence. Young people who have taken their first steps in society easily become victims because they are at the bottom of the organization. Instead of simply leaving it as an issue between labor and management, the government should strengthen new laws and systems to address it.
The Argus: What activities are currently underway or being planned at the Youth Community Union?
Kim: There is a representative organization for social dialogue between labor, management and government, which deals with the overall economy of Korea. We are working in there with other groups to actively use social dialogue institutions and to actively express our opinions.
In addition, our major projects include raising and improving labor conditions for young women, minimum wage campaigns through co-existence with small business owners and correcting the under-representation of youth in local elections.
The Argus: What are your goals for the future?
Kim: I want to reach the point where the power created by the union movement is more representative politically. Through it, I really hope a better world for youth to come. Furthermore, I wish to expand the number of union members to form a third-party labor union, and initiate a wave of social change for the youth.
The Argus: Is there anything you would like to say to the youth, including HUFSans?
Kim: I believe the world is definitely changing. However, the changes can only be subtly felt in everyday life, so you might wonder if anything is really changing. Nevertheless, when you take a step back, the world is actually changing in the right direction. Still, a lot of effort is still needed in order for the world to get better. As more citizens and more parties speak out, it is possible for us to take a step forward, so I hope everyone will be interested in the youth labor issue and be encouraged.
Young people who take their first step into society are often treated unfairly and have poor working conditions because of their lack of job skills. However, it is not easy to speak out. Even so, there are people on the side of young workers who try to fight and become powerful advocators for them like the Youth Community Union. As long as these people exist, the problems of poor working conditions and unfair dismissal of young workers will gradually get solved.
By Kim Tae-young
Staff Reporter of National Section