Science, Technology and Society

Our Science, Technology and Society list publishes books that examine the social, political and economic implications of developments in science and technology.

Recent highlights have included Data Lives, The Imposter as Social Theory and We Have Always Been Cyborgs. Path-breaking book series include Dis-positions: Troubling Methods and Theory in STS and Contemporary Issues in Science Communication.

Science, Technology and Society

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The rise of freelancing has become a global trend, including in South Korea, where there is growing interest in this type of work arrangement. However, the term ‘freelancer’ is not clearly defined and is used interchangeably with other terms, such as independent workers, free agents, one-person entrepreneurs and portfolio workers. This lack of clarity has resulted in the notion of freelancers not yet reaching social and legal consensus. Despite the lack of official statistics, studies have identified the increasing demand for and importance of freelancers in society, particularly with the changes in entrepreneurial structures and technological development. This chapter aims to examine the characteristics of freelance work, the insecurity experienced by freelancers, and their experience with the social security system in South Korea, particularly focusing on the four major social insurances. This analysis is related to cell 3 of the thesis matrix, which represents melting labour excluded from institutional protection, such as platform workers and freelancers.

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The concept of melting labour served as the analytical prism throughout the book to establish the contours of emerging precarious workers and their variety. The book focused on melting labour as companies and capital evolved the capital accumulation mode alongside technological development. The issues observed in newly expanding forms of work overlapped with the Korean labour market, such as platform work, freelancers and other long-standing issues related to non-regular workers and precarious self-employed workers. The new non-standard forms of work went beyond the departure from the standard ‘employment relationship’, and the forms of work were changing in ways that differed from existing standards. However, the precariousness issues associated with these types of work were consistent with those discussed thus far for non-regular workers. The long-standing problems of non-regular workers and those brought about by the emerging ‘form’ of work needed to be explored from a comprehensive and integrated perspective.

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This chapter examines the labour status of platform workers in the Korean digital labour market, situated in cell 3 of the theoretical framework, which is characterised by a high level of melting labour but a low level of institutional protection consistency. Melting labour emphasises the ambiguity in determining a worker’s identity or employer, resulting in a legal blind spot regarding workers in new forms of work. The inconsistency of existing institutional protection policies and new forms of work brought about by the digital economy results in various forms of precarious work. Official data and legal definitions of platform work in Korea are presented, and the expansion of the platform labour market into diverse sectors with the advancement of technology and high internet usage rates in Korea is explained. The chapter categorises platform companies and workers and conducts interviews with workers in delivery, housekeeping services and high-skilled freelance platforms, examining their working conditions and experiences with social protection. The aim of this chapter is to shed light on the precariousness and lack of institutional protection experienced by platform workers in Korea. Specifically, it highlights the inconsistency of the social security system in providing coverage and mitigating insecurity for those situated in cell 3 of the theoretical framework.

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The combination of the Korean welfare state and its labour market is puzzling. In this book, I embark on a journey to unravel the complex relationship between the evolving landscape of melting labour and the inadequacies of institutional protections in the Korean welfare state. South Korea (hereafter, Korea) is often recognised as the most typical case of the East Asian miracle, characterised by broadly fair income distribution without prominent welfare politics representing income, wealth redistribution or labour. The puzzle lies in understanding why, despite achieving economic affluence and rapid institutional development in welfare institutions, Korea has witnessed a distinctively high rate of new forms of precarious work since the 2000s. Why and how does the compressed institutional development of the welfare state fail to protect precarious workers in Korea? In this book, I argue that the mismatch between the institutional combination established during the compressed welfare state development and the melting labour, which has increased precarious work, is at the core of this issue. I will explain how this mismatch renders the old institutions obsolete, employing the concept of policy ‘drift’.

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This chapter delves into the employment structure of subcontracting within the shipbuilding sector, a practice that has become widespread among conglomerate-led manufacturing industries. The chapter primarily investigates the transformation of the prevalent employment structure involving contractor–subcontractor agreements in the shipbuilding industry, an area dominated by conglomerate manufacturing companies that are part of the so-called Korean insider labour market. It also explores the experiences of subcontracted workers within Korea’s social safety net, examining elements such as the employment and wage structures, working patterns, and the relationship between subcontracted workers’ labour market experiences and social security. The case study in this chapter aims to bring attention to the employment status of subcontracted workers who are excluded from institutional protections typically afforded to regular employees, thereby highlighting the plight of non-regular and subcontracted workers within the context of a fissured workplace and inconsistent institutional protection policies.

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In this chapter, I will examine the Korean social protection and labour market policies, as well as the empirical trend in the Korean labour market. The chapter will also provide legal and statistical definitions of various new forms of work in Korea, including platform work. Furthermore, I will explore the concept of melting labour by examining the characteristics of non-standard forms of work and their deviation from the traditional standard employment relationship. We will examine how the eligibility criteria for social security are inconsistent with new forms of work, conceptualised as melting labour, and the level of social protection benefits is low due to low wages and contributions. Additionally, employers’ non-compliance with the scheme and their ambiguous employment relationships make it difficult to determine who the employer is.

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Melting Labour and the Failure to Protect Workers in the Korean Welfare State

Despite recent achievements in the South Korean economy and development within welfare institutions, new forms of precarious work continue to prevail.

This book introduces the concept of ‘melting labour’, which refers the blurring of boundaries between traditional forms of work and workplace and the dissolution of standard employment relationships. Presenting a theoretical framework at the intersection of ‘melting labour’ and institutional protection of workers, it addresses how and why the Korean welfare state has failed to protect precarious workers.

Based on rich, in-depth interviews with over 80 precarious workers in Korea, from subcontracted manufacturing workers to platform workers, it provides a real depiction of how workers lose control over their lives and experience precariousness in labour markets.

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This chapter presents a case study on SsangYong Motor, one of the largest automobile manufacturers in Korea, to examine the experiences of its regular workers after being laid off. The study reveals how standard manufacturing workers, who were once considered insiders in the dual labour market, fall into the outsider category due to weak institutional protection. The case study represents cell 2 in the two-by-two matrix explained in Chapter 1, which includes wage workers who are covered by institutional protection, such as regular workers in large corporations and the public sector, who are considered labour market insiders. Victims of the 2009 SsangYong Motor layoffs experienced a sharp decrease in their income immediately after the layoff and were drifting from one unstable job to another, such as outsourcing, daily labour and micro-scale self-employment. In this chapter, I highlight the issue of old precarity, where workers with stable employment status can easily slide into precarious work once they lose institutional protection.

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This chapter examines the rise of precarious jobs through outsourcing in the service economy, particularly affecting young and old female workers. The chapter sheds light on the inconsistencies between institutions for decommodification and melting labour, leading to an expansion of precarious workers in the Korean labour market. The problems faced by these newly emerging forms of work overlap with those of non-regular workers, and it is necessary to comprehensively examine both types of issues. Through empirical data and interviews with 13 workers and union leaders, the chapter highlights the gender gap in the Korean labour market, focusing on ten young female call centre workers and examining the issues of institutional protection and job instability surrounding older and younger female subcontracted labour in call centres and cleaning services. The chapter underscores how outsourcing has become more accessible due to technological development and offers insights into the unique challenges faced by female workers in precarious forms of work.

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The chapter presents and discusses the main structural and political challenges underlying platform workers’ organizational processes of collective action. Firstly, we present the definition of digital work on which we base our analysis of the rise of platform worker mobilizations. Drawing on the extant literature on the subject, we look at the main challenges to collective action for the two digital workers’ categories considered in the book, namely, food-delivery couriers and Amazon drivers. Secondly, by building a typology of labour process transformations connected to digital work, the chapter discusses the main challenges that these two categories of workers face in organizing collective action at the workplace level. Most of the obstacles to workers’ collective organizing in platform economy derive from specific processes of labour fragmentation that the digital intermediation of platforms induces either directly or indirectly. More specifically, we identify five processes of fragmentation in platform labour: legal, technological, organizational, spatial, and social. In the chapter, we introduce and discuss each of them at length for food-delivery couriers and Amazon drivers.

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