Former White Collar South Koreans, Now Jobless, Turn To Manual Labor & Job Begging

Discussion in 'Economics' started by ByLoSellHi, Jul 6, 2009.

  1. More Green Shits.

    The green shit is really starting to pile up, both here and overseas.

    With Wounded Pride, Unemployed Koreans Quietly Turn to Manual Labor

    Former white-collar workers have joined the fishermen working in Buan, on the west coast of South Korea.

    Published: July 6, 2009

    KUNGHANG, South Korea —
    With his clean white university sweatshirt and shiny cellphone, Lee Chang-shik looks the part of a manager at a condominium development company, the job that he held until last year’s financial panic — and the one he tells his friends and family he still holds.

    But in fact, he leads a secret life. After his company went bankrupt late last year, he recently relocated to this remote fishing village to do the highest-paying work he could find in the current market: as a hand on a crab boat.

    “I definitely don’t put crab fisherman on my résumé,” said Mr. Lee, 33, who makes the five-hour drive back to Seoul once a month to hunt for a desk job. “This work hurts my pride.”

    Tales of the downwardly mobile have become common during the current financial crisis, and South Korea has had more than its share since the global downturn hammered this once fast-growing export economy. But they often have a distinctly Korean twist, with former white-collar workers going into more physically demanding work or traditional kinds of manual labor that are relatively well paid here — from farming and fishing to the professional back-scrubbers who clean patrons at the nation’s numerous public bathhouses.

    Just as distinctly Korean may be the lengths to which some go to hide their newly humble status.

    Mr. Lee says he carefully avoids the topic of work in phone conversations with friends and his parents, and dodges invitations to meet by claiming he is too busy. He gave his name with great reluctance, and only after being assured the article would not appear in Korean.

    Another former white-collar worker who now works on a crab boat in the same village said he could not tell family and friends, and told his wife only via e-mail after arriving here. Yet another tells his parents that he is in Japan.

    In a competitive, status-conscious society, these and other workers say they feel intense shame doing manual work. Some also say they feel guilty working such rough jobs after years of expensive cram schools and college. And many younger workers, having grown up in an increasingly affluent nation, consider physical labor a part of the bygone, impoverished eras of their parents and grandparents.

    “These days, many South Koreans think they have the right to be white collar,” said Lee Byung-hee, senior economist at the Korea Labor Institute, a government-linked research organization based in Seoul. “But their expectations hit the dark reality of this economy, where people have no choice but to go into the blue-collar work force.”

    Labor experts say the number of former office workers who are moving into blue-collar jobs has increased as South Korea has suffered its worst unemployment since the 1997 Asian currency crisis. According to the National Statistical Office, the unemployment rate has risen to 3.8 percent — low by American standards, but high for this Asian economic powerhouse.

    Many of the unemployed can rely on traditional forms of economic support, like living with family. And despite the slowdown, jobs are still to be found in this prosperous society, where the neon-lit bustle of cities like Seoul has not missed a beat.

    Still, Jeong Seung-beom, whose small Seoul-based firm helps recruit workers for South Korea’s fishing industry, says that this year is the busiest he has seen, even better than 1997, when white-collar workers also flooded his office.

    He said his company, the Sea Job Placement Center, now places about 80 people a month, four times the number a year ago. Mr. Jeong said most of the new recruits were laid-off office workers or university students who could no longer afford tuition. Many of the newcomers are so woefully unprepared for the physical demands of fishing, he said, he tries to scare them during orientation sessions.

    On a recent morning in his cramped office, six young men showed up with gym bags, ready to make the trip to Kunghang, near the nation’s southwest tip. Among them was Mr. Lee, the former condominium developer.

    Laid-off workers were hired as fishermen in Kunghang.

    Mr. Jeong warned them that they might get seasick or homesick, or even be injured or killed on the crab boats, which can spend 14 hours a day at sea. When he paused for questions, one man in his 20s asked if he could go home during holidays.

    “Crabs don’t take holidays,” Mr. Jeong scoffed.

    Undaunted, all six went to Kunghang later that day.

    Mr. Lee said he decided to fish because he could make about $1,700 a month, much more than he could earn in Seoul pouring lattes or busing tables. The high salaries stem from the chronic labor shortages in these occupations during the boom years when South Koreans shunned them as too dirty, leaving them to Asian migrant laborers.

    Another allure is that many of these menial jobs seem to be recession-proof, workers and labor experts say.

    Na Deuk-won, who owns a school in Seoul that trains back-scrubbers and bathhouse masseuses, says enrollment has jumped 50 percent this year, to 180 students, because of a sudden influx of university graduates and laid-off office workers.

    “Even in a recession, people need their back scrubbed,” Mr. Na said.

    At his Dongdaemun Bath Academy, students gathered in a tiled shower room to learn how to scrub naked customers with a pair of sponge mitts. One, Hyun Sung-chul, 48, said he had been supervising 50 workers as a manager at a construction company before losing his job in January.

    At first, he said, he hid his enrollment in scrubbing school from family and friends, though he told his wife. When he finally confided about his career change to a friend, he was surprised when the friend confessed interest as well.

    “He told me, ‘Teach me when I get fired, too!’ ” Mr. Hyun said. “I think people come into this field only when they are afraid that their livelihood is at risk.”

    In Kunghang, many of the new crab fishermen recruited by Mr. Jeong expressed regrets about their choice.

    “This is so smelly and dirty, it makes me want to vomit,” Kwak Jung-ho, 33, a branch manager of a cellphone store in Seoul before it closed this year, said as he cut tangled crabs out of a net.

    “If my parents knew what I was doing now, they would pity me,” he said. “Now, I look at the ocean and think, I should have worked harder at the cellphone store, and be a better man for my family.”
  2. A great wake-up call, BLSH.

    I hope they don't (as a culture) believe in suicide (a belief system that says that death would be better than their current situation in life) but rather that they believe that with tomorrow there is always hope for a better day (which could be a lie, but at least they have hope).

    Sounds pretty bad though.
  3. americans would kill to have 3.8% unemployment.
  4. Interesting how NYT reports this story from Korea, but never covers plight of American engineers that experienced the same exact thing. In the last 10 years, I have watched close friends and colleagues get driven out of the tech industry because of H1B and outsourcing, and were forced to take blue color jobs just to get by. (I am talking about some really smart people with engineering degrees, not some lazy schmucks)

    I just hope this economy tanks further so that journalist and lawyers end up losing their jobs too. I wouldn’t mind having this Martin Fackler guy from NYT taking my order at the local restaurant :)
  5. I do believe they cover the downturn here pretty thoroughly, also.
  6. is the guy in the background taking a leak?
  7. There may be a silver lining in all this, in that people will be
    glad to just have a job period. And realize that all honest
    work is noble. Reality check is headed this way.
  8. Mav88


    yeah but... I just don't want to scrub Jack Hershey's back, nor do I want him giving me a bath
  9. Remember all those 'Flip That House' type shows, where some 22 year old with ZERO clue of construction or real estate would overpay for some house (usually by 300%), put 80k into it, typically going 50% over budget, and sell it for a 200k profit?

    Remember the young equity brokers that would just pour money into any old fund, back in 2003 to mid 2007, and make nothing but money, no matter what the makeup of companies was?

    Remember developers selling lots to public homebuilders, raking in the cash?

    Remember the condo king of Miami, Jorge Perez, borrowing 12 billion to build 17,000 condominiums in Miami (before going broke)?

    Remember that show, 'King of Cars,' featuring Towbin Dodge, where they were selling 400+ cars per month? I just talked to the largest Nissan Dealer in Texas, who told me he went from selling an average of 315 new cars a month to - 27 last month. Ouch.

    Remember when the casinos in Vegas were so crowded you'd have trouble finding a table? Go ask a waitress who fetches drinks working on tips (the scantily clad kind) what she's making now versus three years ago.

    Remember when Mortgage Brokers who didn't finish high school were making 600k a year? Or that Porsche dealer that was the biggest in the country in Ventura County, California, home of the subprime mortgage industry, that closed down as former mortgage brokers were leaving their unpaid Porsches on the lot at night with the keys under the floor mats?

    Yeah, those days are loooong gone.

    The problem now is that bubble that is now deflating is leading to massive deleveraging which is hurting the people that do know what hard, honest work is, and have been doing it all their lives. These people are getting crushed, now, too.

    Yeah, those days are looong gone.
  10. That.... and the fact that there are now what, 500 Million Asian and Latin workers in competition for what formerly was 20-30 million (?) middle-class wage jobs in the US.... which can probably only be addressed with protectionism.. and all the problems that would mean.
    #10     Jul 7, 2009