Where minimum wage means, “Don’t get married. Live alone your whole life”

Posted on : 2015-06-02 16:59 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Workers at Homeplus fighting for a minimum wage based on a standard household of 2.5 people

Kim Jin-sook heads the Seoul head office of the labor union for the Homeplus retail chain. The 36-year-old has been working as a cashier for the large retailer for over seven years. But on April 24, she took on a big new job: a three-year term as a member of the Minimum Wage Council.

Homeplus employees earn 5,700 won (US$5.11) per hour, which is barely above the minimum wage of 5,580 won (US$5.00). The Minimum Wage Council has had a total of 267 members since its 1987 launch, but Kim is the first person actually working at the minimum wage to become one of the people deciding its level.

Speaking on May 31 at Homeplus’s Yeongdeungpo branch in Seoul, Kim stressed that one of her top priorities is changing the way the minimum wage is calculated.

“One of the union members was cheering me on, telling me it was ‘about whether we live semi-underground or on the ground floor,’” she explained. “When they said that, I could really sense the weight of that existence.”

Currently, the standard for calculating the minimum wage is the cost of living for an unmarried worker living alone.

“Many of the union members are in debt or make ends meet by using cash services,” said Kim, who is a member of the council’s “cost of living specialist committee.”

“I’ve been married over six years, but having a baby is out of the question,” she added.

Kim‘s idea for a standard is a household of 2.5 people rather than one. That would mean raising the minimum wage to 10,000 won (US$8.96) an hour.

“With the current level, they’re basically telling minimum wage workers ‘don’t get married’ and ‘live alone your whole life,” she said. “The average cost of living should be a family of 2.5 at a minimum.”

Kim has been splitting her schedule up recently to study up on the minimum wage. Having seen it from the inside now, she has identified a number of issues with the Minimum Wage Council itself.

“They’ve got members from the employers‘ end who say things like, ’We don’t have time, let’s finish up quickly‘ or ’Some of those minimum wage workers are just doing it to pass the time,‘” she noted. “There doesn’t seem to be much basic questioning about the importance of the minimum wage.”

That‘s also the reason it’s important to disclose the proceedings of the council’s discussion, Kim said.

“Given the way union organization rates have been dropping, the Minimum Wage Council’s meetings are basically wage negotiations,” she explained.

“We need to be transparent about how the minimum wage is decided and what process they go through,” she continued. “That’s the only way all the council members will act with a sense of responsibility.”

The 2016 minimum wage is scheduled to be set in late June after discussions involving 27 people, including Kim and eight other representatives of labor, and nine each representing the employer and the public interest.


By Park Tae-woo, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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