Seoul, Korea– On weekday afternoons, the Starbucks in the Yangjae neighborhood of southern Seoul was crowded with office workers seeking refreshments after lunch.
When white-collar workers line up to order hot and cold drinks, there is a long line from the counter to the swinging glass door of the store. Seasonal specialties include lavender beige oatmeal latte with cornflower leaves and New Year’s citrus tea decorated with lemongrass and a slice of orange.
“We came here with colleagues after lunch, because we know that everyone can find what they like,” Yin Minzhu, who works for a nearby interior design company, told Al Jazeera.
“In smaller coffee shops, they usually only provide basic coffee and tea. At Starbucks, even people who don’t like coffee or are on a diet can easily order food,” she said.
Starbucks is very popular in Korea, and it seems that there are branches in almost every neighborhood. The country is Starbucks’ fourth largest market, with 1,611 stores and nearly 20,000 employees, and the company refers to it as a “partner.”
But despite the brand’s popularity-based on its huge menu, connections with the American middle class, and branded merchandise-the coffee giant is now facing challenges to its image in Korea, and its form is right. Review of working conditions in its stores.The way workers react may herald the evolution of labor activism A country with a history of strong protest.
In October, when the company held an event to provide reusable cups when buying drinks, the barista’s fatigue and frustration boiled over.
On Blind, an application where employees can anonymously vent workplace conditions, and employees complain about low wages and poor conditions. Some people told the horror story of ordering as many as 650 drinks at once, while scrambling to pour, mix and serve a steady stream of customers while making no mistakes, smiling and maintaining friendly customer service.
In December, the left-wing politician Liu Haozhen announced the results of a survey that showed that in 2020, 613 Starbucks employees sought mental health treatment due to work stress, a five-fold increase from 2015. The survey also found that workplace accidents had tripled from the previous year.
In order to draw people’s attention to their plight, the workers rented a flatbed truck with a huge light curtain to drive from downtown Seoul to the busy Gangnam area in the southern part of the city, to the crowds of Starbucks stores all over the city. The group of customers expressed their dissatisfaction. Lunch. The text displayed on the screen is a tribute to the company, including “‘Partner’ is your greatest asset. Don’t forget this” and “We won’t accept it anymore”.
The protest made national headlines and successfully secured a concession from Starbucks Korea, which promised to hire another 1,600 workers to ease conditions in its stores. The company entered South Korea in 1999, when brewing coffee was still a novelty, and it also promised to increase wages based on seniority and performance.
While the workers at Starbucks were fighting, the backbone of the Korean labor organization noticed how a group of young service workers won attention and material benefits.
This Korea Federation of Trade UnionsIt is a major umbrella labor organization with more than 1 million members in various industries across the country. It welcomes the actions of Starbucks employees and encourages them to work hard to establish a union.
“By forming a union, workers can resolve their grievances,” KCTU said in a statement.
Starbucks protesters, mostly in their 20s and 30s, swipe to the left at the invitation to join the union, saying that instead of collective bargaining with Starbucks management, they can communicate their needs more effectively through innovative strategies such as truck protests.
In South Korea, unions have been an integral part of shipyards and factories for decades, but in recent years, some of the country’s most innovative companies (including technology giants Kakao and Naver) have worked hard to unionize.
‘A radical struggle’
Yu Gyu-chang, a professor of human resources management at Hanyang University, told Al Jazeera that South Korea’s work culture is increasingly concerned about the well-being of workers.
“As the voices of Millennials and Generation Z have grown louder, social pressure has been increasing,” Yu said.
The increase in labor organizations comes at a time when inequality has become a core topic of public discourse in South Korea, which is reflected in Pop culture phenomenon squid game, Because many people in the country are looking for ways to find a stable life in an increasingly cruel economy.
According to data released by the Ministry of Labor in December, the union rate in South Korea has risen from 12.5% last year to 14.2% in 2020.
“Many young people want to work in companies with unions because they realize that unions can provide protection and help them get the benefits they want,” Li Bingxun, an expert on labor relations at Central University, told Al Jazeera.
“They don’t like South Korea’s old-style union activism, radical struggle, fighting and protest.”
The politician Ryu said in a statement that her investigation showed that the working conditions of Starbucks employees still need to be improved.
“There will inevitably be a second and third truck protest,” she said.
Although their victory is incomplete, the way Starbucks employees attract the attention of their bosses and the country may herald the evolution of South Korean labor organizations, get rid of old traditional protests, and move towards an era when workers seek new ways to convey their ideas. need.
“For the protests of the younger generation, what is more important than success, failure or the degree of attention they receive is that they don’t want their arguments or intentions to be distorted even a little bit,” said Professor Lin Minghao. Dankook University Psychology.
“They are confident to express their opinions without outside help,” Lin said. “There will be more cases like Starbucks.”