For many Koreans, retirement means more work with less security

Posted on : 2023-01-24 10:29 KST Modified on : 2023-01-24 10:29 KST
More and more aging Koreans are reaching retirement age only to have to go back to work at lower wages and in less secure positions
Jeong Seok-cheol, who retired from his job at SNT Dynamics after 36 years there, holds a plaque for his years of service at the factory in Changwon, southeastern Korea, on Dec. 31, 2022. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
Jeong Seok-cheol, who retired from his job at SNT Dynamics after 36 years there, holds a plaque for his years of service at the factory in Changwon, southeastern Korea, on Dec. 31, 2022. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

“I didn’t think I would be, but I’m all choked up.”

Jeong Seok-cheol, 61, a production worker at SNT Dynamics in Changwon, is retired.

It was Dec. 27, 2022, and the yellow, red and pink balloons his grizzled coworkers at the factory had hung up in the union office ahead of his retirement were funny, tender and sad.

Jeong hugged each of his coworkers and left the factory, where few young people work.

He’d worked at the factory for 36 years and four months, since August of 1986.

His time at the factory coincided with Korea moving from a mid-ranked industrial nation to a developed one.

Jeong looked at the factory and his own life in 2023 as his career as a permanent employee came to a close.

As for what’s left for Jeong at the end of his career, it’s typical for a person in his 60s in Korea.

His son is a senior in high school, and he needs to pay rent at least.

“Even if I get a job, I think it’ll be non-permanent,” he said.

He collected his retirement bonus early rather than take delayed or reduced wages during the frequent temporary closures that followed the 1997 financial crisis, so he received no retirement bonus.

His pre-tax salary of 40 million-50 million won (US$32,00-40,500( a year barely covered his living expenses.

He couldn’t join a private pension; he only has private health insurance and cancer insurance.

He can start collecting his national pension — “At least that’s a comfort,” he says — from the age of 63, but it’s peanuts.

He plans to start collecting his pension as late as possible.

Ultimately, he’ll live the typical life of a man in his 60s.

“I must keep working until at least 65. I can go to a subcontractor’s factory. It’ll be hard, and I’ll collect low wages,” he said.

In the end, he’ll become a subcontractor.

The inability of baby boomers to enjoy complete retirements, the lower worth of factory workers due to outsourcing, and a lack of youth interest in factory employment is naturally leading factories to be full of older subcontractors and non-permanent employees.

The percentage of function or machine operators at factories over the age of 55 increased from 22% (1.1 million) in 2013 to 36% (2 million) last year.

Lee Seon-im, the deputy head of the South Gyeongsang Province branch of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, said after retirement, many people start new work as subcontractors or return to their original factories as subcontractors.

“In big factories with good labor-management agreements, they continue their work as senior contract workers,” he said.

Disappearing value of manual work

Jeong can guess what awaits him as a factory subcontractor by looking at the life of his former coworker, Kim Myeong-woo, 61 (alias).

Kim retired a year ahead of Jeong in 2021 and returned to the factory as a subcontractor --- to the same parts processing station he’d been working at for 40 years, with the same team members.

All that changed was the job title on the breast of his work clothes and his now low salary.

“I didn’t like it at first, but now that I’m used to it, it’s good enough for me, and better than others,” he said.

Kim talks like it was nothing, but he doesn’t deny it’s hurt his pride.

“When we entered the company, we felt we were the best, but now there aren’t even young people on whom to pass the work. It’s disheartening,” he said.

Can you replace Kim’s 40 years of skills on cutting-edge machines?

Mimicking different work processes, he argued with his coworkers for a while, but no answer emerged.

What was clear was no matter how good a machine is, “you can make better things if you combine the machines with the touch of a person who knows what he’s doing.”

Even automation requires people.

Manufacturing businesses were short 161,101 people as of the second half of last year, up 30.9% from the previous year.

Life after isolation

Jeong will likely transfer alone to some factory in the industrial complex.

“I’m prepared,” he said. “But I’m worried about my safety. And you hear bad things…”

Last October, three workers in their 60s were killed in industrial accidents in Changwon Industrial Complex.

“A the heart of the accidents was that they were working at workplaces where firms couldn’t manage the dangers because they (the workplaces) were subcontractors, rather than the fact that the victims were over 60,” said Kim Byeong-hun, the worker health and safety bureau chief of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’ provincial branch.

“Even if they had detected danger, who are the workers going to tell when things are divided into contractors and subcontractors and they have no unions?”

Outsourcing, aging, the end of manual skills, worker isolation, industrial accidents, all in one spot.

Still, even after looking back at the current state of factory workers in the developed Republic of Korea, Jeong felt sorry.

“They talk about how much Korea has developed [today], but I think our generation was better off,” he said.

“Young people now enter the factory as non-permanent workers with neither unions nor coworkers. And it’s hard for them to pick up skills. I feel sorry and pity them.”

On the commemorative plaque Jeong received on the day of his retirement, it is written, “You gave all the passion of your soul and might for the spirit of our company motto of being future oriented.“

This isn’t the future Jeong imagined when he joined the company in 1986, when he worried if he could endure it all.

In 2023, at a factory where young people now have an even tougher time enduring, he finds himself in the very same position as they.

By Bang Jun-ho, staff reporter

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