4 Million People Out of Work in Korea

  • By Kim Jung-hoon, Lee Ki-hun

    January 14, 2021 13:32

    A total of 218,000 jobs were lost last year, resulting in the worst unemployment since the Asian financial crisis 22 years ago.

    There have been only four times so far when the number of employed people in Korea declined on-year: the oil shock of 1984 (-76,000), the Asian financial crisis in 1998 (-1.28 million), the credit card crisis in 2003 (-10,000) and the global financial crisis of 2008 (-87,000).

    The number of unemployed people last year reached 1.11 million, which was the highest level seen since 2000. But in fact more than 4 million people are having a tough time finding work counting the 1.09 million people who eke out a living in part-time jobs, 1.81 million people who are not classified as jobless since they have given up looking for work and 65,000 people who have tried looking for jobs but cannot work for personal reasons.

    Korea's unemployment rate shoots up to a staggering 13.6 percent if all of these people are included, the highest since 2015 and up from only 3.52 million people in 2019.

    Temporary and part-time workers were hit first by the coronavirus pandemic. The number of short-term jobs for less than a month declined by 101,000, while temporary positions available for a month to a year decreased by 313,000.

    But conditions are quite different from in 1998 right after the Asian financial crisis. At that time, 60 percent of jobs that were lost were white-collar positions due to a chain of corporate bankruptcies and bank defaults. This time, the bulk are part-time positions.

    Lee Sang-ho at the Korea Economic Research Institute said, "Labor unions have become more powerful over the last two decades and full-time workers' job security increased, so vulnerable irregular workers bore the brunt."

    A man looks at a job bulletin board at a local district office in Seoul on Wednesday.

    A bigger problem is the deterioration in the quality of available jobs. Last year, 53,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, and they have declined for the last five years.

    Quality full-time jobs are now being replaced by temporary positions. Some 5.95 million short-term jobs last year were for fewer than 36 hours a week, and they accounted for 22.1 percent of total jobs.

    The government is trying to pad out employment numbers by offering part-time menial jobs to senior citizens who work just 30 hours a month and receive a measly W270,000 (US$1=W1,097). That means employment declined across all age groups except among people over 60, where it rose by 375,000.

    Employed people in their 30s, who constitute the backbone of Korea's workforce, dwindled by 165,000 last year, followed by those in their 40s by 158,000, in their 20s by 146,000, and in their 50s by 88,000.

    The official unemployment rate among people aged 15 to 29 stands at nine percent, but the real rate is a staggering 25.1 percent.

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