Abolishing “Platform Labour” in South Korea

At the Platform Workers Conference on the September 28, 2022, deputy driving, taxi drivers, webtoon and web novel writers, and delivery riders gathered together with shared demands. Although the industry and the work they do are all different, they are all ‘platform workers’.

The most significant commonality is that platform companies that make profits from their labour do not take responsibilities for the workers. Platform companies claim that they are all ‘freelancers’ and ‘self-employed’ and do not recognize them as workers.

Even after workers form their union and obtain a certificate of establishment from the administrative office, the companies refuse to comply with the labour union’s demands for bargaining and try to deny any responsibility for workers’ social insurance.

What attitude is the government taking? At the regular National Assembly at the end of 2021, the Moon Jae-in government set a direction to indemnify the responsibility of platform companies by creating a ‘Platform Workers Act’.

In reality, it was an attempt to deny basic labour rights by disguising platform workers as freelancers under the guise of protecting them.


Searching for Hope


If the Moon Jae-in government had not attempted to push the Platform Workers Act at the National Assembly, the meeting called ‘Finding Platform Workers’ Hope’ would not have been possible. In September of 2021, platform labour unions, which had different industries and jobs, gathered with a sense of crisis at the appeal of the ‘Daeri’ Driver Union and Rider Union. ‘Daeri’ drivers are app workers driving for people who can’t drive their own cars after drinking.

Although there were not enough discussions and agreement on which direction to go in order to guarantee the rights of platform workers, no one objected that at the very least the Platform Workers Act promoted by the Moon Jae-in government should be opposed. Fortunately, the legislation of the Platform Workers Act was taken off the table at the beginning of 2022.

Platform unions and civil society organizations that had gathered for the short-term goal of stopping the law believed that their action should not stop here. By officially launching a group called ‘Finding Hope for Platform Labour’, we agreed that it was necessary not only to stop the law, but also to bring together our demands and seek out the rights to make them come true.

Starting in February 2022, we have been preparing for the Platform Workers Conference, where hundreds of union members and civic group members would gather.


Organising Common Demands


How was it possible to create the common demands of platform workers in various industries, from webtoon writers to mobility drivers? It wasn’t easy. But we find that what platform companies did abroad was similar to what they did in Korea. Can we learn something from those who tried to organize before us?

The AB5 Act in California, the Ley Riders Act in Spain, and the European Union’s Directive on platform labour, as well as the Supreme Court decisions in Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands were coming out one after another. Platform unions were formed in various places, and in some places, examples of successful signing of collective agreements with platform companies can be found.

First of all, an attempt was made to discuss and gather the demands of platform workers for the presidential election on March 9, 2022. The idea that there would be a big difference between curation-type platforms such as webtoons and mobility platforms such as taxi, delivery and delivery was just a prejudice.

Surprisingly, we were able to confirm a lot of commonalities between them. Although it took time, we were able to gather common demands in the form of ‘the five major demands of platform worker for presidential elections’, which I will elaborate below.

The problem was how we can translate our demands into legislation form. Platform labour has so many similarities with workers in special employment type such as own-account workers. However, it was not easy to reflect some, if not all, of the special needs scattered across various industries in the general law such as Labour Standard Act and Trade Union Act. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a task that the entire democratic union movement has left unanswered.

So we decided to turn it around. Before collecting the legislative demands, we tried to formulate administratively solvable demands, that is, the demands we should ask of the government. Our discussion referred to the five major demands in the presidential election, and we added new demands based on our struggle and experience.

There were two major struggles and experiences in 2022. One is the successful outcome of the struggle to renew the entitlement standard for industrial accident insurance. In the Korean Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act, only a person working exclusively for one employer is eligible for industrial accident insurance. Most delivery riders finding jobs through various platforms such as Baemin (i.e. DeliveryHero) and CoupangEats are not entitled to insurance because they are working for more than one employer.

This ridiculous standard and article was abolished in May according to new ruling party’s suggestion, which was largely owed to Rider Union’s struggle during the transition committee period from March to May, 2022 immediately after the election of President Yoon Seok-yeol. To be honest, we were not sure of the success of this struggle either. However, surprisingly, it was confirmed that even conservative politicians are seriously recognising the fact that this is not just a problem of a few unfortunate accidents, but an urgent problem for all the millions of platform workers.

The second is that collective bargaining was held between major unions and platform companies, such as Rider Union vs. CoupangEats and Daeri Drivers Union vs. Kakao Mobility. The issues that we had only been aware in abstract terms were now made much more concretely in the clash between labour and capital. For example, in relation to the algorithm, we felt the abstraction of the talk of ‘disclosure’ or the logic of capital’s counterattack could be made explicit.

The Five Demands


The five demands we have proposed are as follows.

First, we demand that platform companies should be held accountable under the Labour Law. Platform companies are denying employer responsibility for platform workers under the Labour Law, arguing that they are only intermediaries. One solution is to expand the definition of ‘employer’ in Article 2 of the Trade Union Act. But even without any amendment of the Act, the Ministry of Employment and Labour has the authority and duty to promote collective bargaining between platform companies and unions according to the ILO Conventions, ratified last year by the Korean government.

Second, we demand the guarantee of a living wage for platform workers. The fees for workers are all unilaterally set by platform companies, which forces platform workers to live below the minimum wage. In particular, just like the ‘Safe Rates’ system which is playing the same role as a minimum wage system in the freight transport sector, it is necessary to find a way to guarantee a living wage above the minimum wage for platform workers, too. As the Constitution places the responsibility of guaranteeing a fair wage on the government, the Ministry of Employment and Labour should be responsible for implementing this guarantee.

Third, we demand that platform companies should explain the algorithm to platform workers, and moreover, the algorithm should reflect the opinions of workers. It’s a blatant false excuse when platform companies say ‘everything is decided by the algorithm itself’. Algorithms that affect working conditions are nothing but work-rules of employment. The work-rules of employment should be accessible to all workers at all time by the Labour Standard Act. The algorithm should be explained in an easy-to-understand manner for workers. In addition, if the algorithm is an employment work-rule, verifying it is an issue of labour inspection, so the Ministry of Employment and Labour should verify the platform companies’ algorithm.

Fourth, we demand that social insurance applies to all platform workers without discrimination. The company with the highest number of industrial accident applications and approvals until August 2022 was BaeMin, the Korean subsidiary of DeliveryHero. Coupang Co., Ltd., which had a lot of delivery drivers, was in second place; Coupang Fulfillment, which employs the most daily and contract workers, in 7th place; and, Coupang Eats is in 9th place. Four platform companies were listed in the top 10 companies for industrial accident applications and approvals. Until 2019, there were 4-5 construction companies in the Top 10, but the structure of employment and labour in South Korea is fluctuating to such an extent that platform companies quickly surpassed large construction companies.

Industrial accident insurance and employment insurance have begun to be partially applied to platform workers, but discrimination persists, such as selective application by industry and 50% employee co-payment. The Ministry of Employment and Labour, the department in charge of operating the Employment Insurance Committee and the Industrial Accident Insurance and Prevention Committee, should step in.

Fifth, we demand a guarantee for platform workers the right to work safely. For ordinary workers, the demand for ‘reducing working hours’ is translated as ‘the right to rest’ when it comes to platform work. Annual paid and sick leave should be guaranteed, and webtoon writers should be given the ‘right to rest’, the right to take a paid break from serialization. In the process of applying the Serious Accident Punishment Act, the Ministry of Employment and Labour’s administrative interpretation that excludes platform labour from the ‘calculation of the number of full-time workers’ should be abolished. The Serious Accident Punishment Act should be applied to platform workers in its entirety.


Where Do We Go from Here?


The word ‘platform labour’ itself is nonsense. It is a word that was used because we needed a concept to collectively refer to these workers. But in fact, such a concept should disappear. Everyone should enjoy basic rights as workers, whether through platforms or apps or not, and those who benefit from our labour should be held accountable.

Platform workers do not benefit from being called ‘platform labour’. In fact, the process is just the opposite. The fact that platform labour is no different from ordinary labour, therefore, that we should not be treated as special labour and should be treated the same as ordinary labour.

How much platform workers and labour unions raise their own demands is the most important question. We are working with civil society organizations to increase the power of the union movement. In the future, through the ‘Platform Labour Conference’, we plan to share policy and issue concerns with the wider platform union and civil society organizations.

We have no intention of claiming that we are the only representative organization of platform labour. Anyone can form an organization to advocate for platform labour, and anyone should be able to organize a platform worker convention.

Although it is still just the beginning, I would like to thank all those who have shown interest, and I would like to conclude this article by asking for your continued interest and solidarity in the future.

(Photo: woowahan.com)

This article was originally published in Korean in the journal of Korean Solidarity against Precarious Work in October 2022. It has been translated and updated by the author.


Min-gyu Oh is the Executive Director of Finding Hope for Platform Labour, and Senior Research Fellow of Labour Research Institute Emancipation.