On October 21, Seoul, South Korea, witnessed a mass labor protest. The protesters were dressed like the characters in Squid Game, the most streamed television series on Netflix. The costumes were by no means a tribute to Halloween, but to the growing economic inequality, lack of labor protections, and the persistent governmental corruption in South Korea that Squid Game calls into question.
With almost 142 million viewers, Squid Game is so far the biggest series launch in Netflix’s streaming history. The show follows 456 financially-ruined adults after agreeing to participate in a survival game with an attractive cash prize. Seong Gi-hun, a divorced father and indebted gambler, allies with players throughout the series to overcome the physical and psychological challenges through the game. This deadly survival game, Squid Game, is a metaphor for the lives of South Korea’s working class.
Behind South Korea’s rapid economic growth, there is a persistent lack of labor protection. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has observed that from 2016 to 2020—despite the 1908 hours worked per worker (far above OECD-total 1687 hours per worker)—its labor compensation per hour worked has only witnessed a severe decrease by 4.1% annually. The country also has the world’s largest gender wage gap and rate of people of 66 years or more. These statistics explain the motivation behind such “Squid Game” protests; high-stress working environments, workplace discrimination, and low compensation rates cause major social and economic problems that South Korea must address.
Squid Game character Abdul Ali, a migrant factory worker, is also representative of the exploited migrant workforce in South Korea. The decreasing birth rate, and the rapidly aging population, incentivize South Korea to fill the labor shortage with its migrant workers, especially in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Ali’s boss’ withholdment of his wages is an example of the lack of labor protection among migrant workers. According to Reuters, South Korea has witnessed the death of approximately 60% of undocumented migrant workers from illnesses or accidents, and the other 40% from “unknown” reasons. Despite the unfair treatment and dangerous working conditions, many migrants still remain in the workforce. South Korean labor activist Kim Yi-Chan explains that “the laborers bite the bullet and stay on because they are warned and threatened that if they leave, they can become illegal immigrants.”
The labor protest in October also opposed corruption. Park Geun-Hye’s political scandal, impeachment, and imprisonment buried seeds of suspicion among the public towards the government. South Korea’s public procurement has shown to be at high risk of corruption, and public funds are susceptible to individual and group corruption. Bribery and favoritism are also affecting decisions made on policies and contracts.
Hopes are being laid on President Moon’s proposal titled “Special Law on Preventing Discrimination against Non-Regular Workers,” which includes limits on gender wage gaps, encouragement for safer working environments, and a non-regular-worker levy on big companies. Though the Moon administration has pledged to counter corruption and to further the extent of worker’s rights, the Blue House reaction to the October “Squid Game” labor protest demonstrated little sympathy towards the public. Calling the protest “disappointing,” the Blue House hoped to discourage future protests from the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) due to their impacts on the COVID-19 situation. South Korea has successfully managed its COVID-19 situation without implementing any wide economic closure that might heavily jeopardize its economy, so the mass mobilization is the last thing the Moon administration—which is gradually working to become a major vaccine producer—wants to see. A rapid rise of COVID-19 cases, as well as protests concerning labor strife, neither benefits South Korea’s economy, nor, builds its credibility and reputation to become a major vaccine producer. The challenge for South Korea then becomes balancing the needs of the working class and controlling the number of COVID-19 cases.
The rise in workplace inequality in South Korea, along with shrinking birth rates, corruption, and pandemic relief are looming issues that the nation must address. The potential for the Miracle of the Han River to persist largely depends on how South Korea will tackle these issues.