Saturday, March 28, 2009

How to Keep Everyone Employed - Or Korean Window Washing

As can be expected, I've been learning a lot about Korean culture and especially the Korean business culture and work ethic.

It is absolutely amazing how hard Koreans work - most work six days a week with 12 hour days. Only recently has the two day weekend been introduced, and it seems that many people ignore it. This strong work ethic is testament to how quickly Korea has risen up in status - turning from basically a peasant agrarian economy to a modern economic powerhouse in the past 50 years.

For all the work that Koreans do, it turns out that they don't get paid that well, or for the time that they actually work. Overtime is expected and not reimbursed - the thought is that if you have to work overtime, it shows that you are struggling and can't actually get your work done in the time allotted. It is not considered overtime if you aren't getting paid for it, so you don't report your overtime work - you just do it.

Minimum wage is ₩4,000 per hour (about $3.00) and people work their asses off for it. While Korea is cheap for things like food and services, Seoul is especially expensive for housing, and many people live with their parents until they get married. Here are some prices (in USD):
  • Haircut (with drink, shampoo, cut, shampoo, back / scalp massage) $15 (including tip)
  • Bi Bim Bap (big delicious bowl of rice and veggies, maybe a little meat) $3.30 (you don't tip)
  • Daily metro commute $1.34 (round trip)
  • 30 minute taxi ride $7.45
  • A cup of horrible coffee $2.25
  • A carton of 20 eggs $3.34 (we get the good kind)
  • Five kilos of rice $8.92
  • One month's electricity / gas bill $85 (for our 212 sq ft studio)
  • One month's rent for our studio $558
  • One Vittoria Roundeneer tire $26
Income: $3 x 8 hours x 6 days x 52 weeks = $7,488 per year.
Rent + utilities: $558 + $85 x 12 months = $7,716 per year.

As you can see, housing is disproportionately expensive, especially for people who make minimum wage. This is why people live with their parents for years, or live out in the suburbs where things are much cheaper. I don't know how many hours of work people actually get paid for, but I know it isn't the 12 that they put in. Many things in Korea are copied from the US, so there is a good chance wage is calculated from an eight hour work day.

*It should be noted that our apartment is brand new, in a good location, a five minute walk from the metro station and only five stops (four miles) from a main business area.*

As there is almost no state-provided social security system, many older people are either supported by their families (respecting the elder members of your family is very important) or work, or both.

The other day as I was waiting for students to show up, a whole brigade of older women came through the conference room, washing windows. This is a classic example of how Korean business works - many people, highly stratified positions and questionable efficiency, paired with the ability to financially support a large number of people. I think the thought is that paying a bunch of people very little is much better than paying one person a regular wage.

A list of the interior window washers and duties:
  1. Window Washer: Washing the windows
  2. 1st Squeegee: Squeegee most of the windows
  3. 2nd Squeegee: Squeegee what 1st Squeegee missed
  4. 1st Rag: Standing on the window ledge, drying water off the sides of the windows
  5. 3rd Squeegee: Squeegee what the 1st and 2nd Squeegees didn't get
  6. 2nd Rag: Drying the bottom of the windows
  7. 3rd Rag: Cleaning the window ledges where 1st Rag stood
  8. 4th Rag: Drying anything anyone else missed
  9. 1st Blind Closer: closing half of the blinds
  10. 2nd Blind Closer: closing the other half of the blinds
I don't know what to say... at least they all have an income? It was crazy to watch all these people filtering through the room. To their credit, they managed to clean the 7 windows before any of my students came in.


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