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(Yonhap Feature) "Passion pay" preys on desperate job seekers

All Headlines 09:00 January 12, 2016

By Kim Han-joo

SEOUL, Jan. 12 (Yonhap) -- A 28-year-old student of South Korea's top-notch Seoul National University law school believes that he has chosen his career based on his passion for law.

Still, everything changed when he realized that he has to be passionate enough to put up with extremely long work hours for a six-month, mandatory internship at a small law firm at just 500,000 won (US$410) per month.

"I know that law school students need to work extra-hard for the work experience," he said. "However, I thought this is too much." He asked not to be identified, citing possible damage to his job prospects.

Kim Myung-ki, a secretary-general of the Korean Association of Law Schools, said passion pay is rampant among law school graduates in South Korea.

"There are many law firms that do not even give out basic wages," Kim said, adding that law firms should provide minimum wages not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of society as a whole.

The minimum wage for 2016 is set at 6,030 won per hour.

Such young, desperate job seekers have coined the term "passion pay," referring to the phenomenon that interns face low wages in hopes that their passion for the work could help brighten their prospects for decent jobs.

The job market for the younger generation is grim.

The jobless rate among young people between 15 and 29 stood at 8.1 percent in November, much higher than the 3.1 percent unemployment rate for the country as a whole, according to government data.

The practice of exploiting youth job seekers hungry for experience has become widespread in both private companies and government organizations.

The term came to public attention last year when a prominent fashion designer, Lee Sang-bong, was found to have paid only 100,000 won to trainees, including overtime pay, a month.

Full-time workers earned 1.1 million won per month, also below the minimum wage, according to unionized fashion industry workers.

Most recently, a former aide to Rep. Kim Sang-min of the Saenuri Party argued that he was promised by the legislator a stipend of 4 million won per month, rather than 2 million won.

"I worked for free for the first month," the former aide, whose identity has been withheld, said. "I received 2 million won but worked in a position that pays out 4 million."

The lawmaker refuted the former aide's claim, saying that he has never promised the high position, claiming that the former employee has failed to work as a team player.

Creating jobs for the young generation has been one of the main goals of President Park Geun-hye's labor reform drive as she seeks to increase labor flexibility to create more jobs for young adults amid a protracted economic slowdown.

Park launched the "Youth Hope Fund" to create jobs for young adults as youth unemployment has become a serious social problem in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Park became its first donor, contributing 20 million won, and promised to give 3.2 million won, or 20 percent of her monthly pay, each month to the fund.

Many experts, however, argue that merely creating more jobs is not a solution to the current phenomenon.

"Labor at the transition stage (internship or apprentice) is a ladder that leads to stable jobs," said Cheong Joon-young, chief of the Youth Community Union, adding that employers should not exploit internships in the name of education.

Cheong further said that the government should more actively launch a crackdown on companies taking advantage of young people as cheap labor.


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