South Korea's Young Workers Earn ‘Passion Wages’, Meaning Hardly Anything at All

Image entitled 'How to calculate Passion Wage'. All three conditions (which says from the left 'One has passion', 'One has talents' and 'One has the skills') lead to one conclusion of 'It is okay to pay less'.  Image shared by net users and shared in Enha Wiki Mirror site, (CC BY SA 2.0)

Image titled ‘How to calculate passion wage’. All three conditions (which read from the left to right, ‘One has passion’, ‘One has talents’ and ‘One has the skills’) lead to the conclusion that ‘it is okay to pay less’. Image shared by Enha Wiki Mirror site, (CC BY NC SA 2.0)

“Passion wage” (the English for the Korean ‘열정페이’) has recently emerged as a new term in South Korea in reference to the extremely low pay given to young workers, often lower than the minimum wage. Employers hope that the workers’ “passion” will somehow compensate for the lack of a livable wage. 

The term was first inspired by the extremely low pay that young interns of renowned fashion designer Lie Sang-bong receive, which was heavily criticized by youth rights group. Since then, many more testimonies of “passion wage” have followed. As this hot buzzword turned up in conversations and in news stories, the government ordered monitoring of alleged abuses of young people in the workforce.

South Korea's youth unemployment rate hit a record high of 9% in December 2014. One of the most scandalous cases of “passion wage” was that of an online game maker company, which posted a job advertisement offering voice actors compensation of ‘several hundred diamonds’ — the money used in the game, not real-world money — for their work.

Net users have shared many similar instances of small clothing shops paying their temporary photo editors and clothing models in clothing items, not money. 

Outraged, young people have taken to social media to recount their experiences with little to no compensation for work they performed for the sake of getting experience. Many have noted that unpaid internships favor young people from wealthy families, who can afford to pay living expenses while doing work for free.

Probationary employment, apprenticeship, internship, part-time work and now the “passion wage”… The word “exploitation” has evolved in various ways and transformed itself into more sophisticated forms as time goes by. 

When someone wants to get only benefits from others’ labor, resources and talents but doesn't want to pay for it, what they often do is turn that labor into something ‘sacred’. Domestic work, child-rearing, being drafted, and currently, “passion wage” or talent-sharing are good examples.

I totally agree. All those hours spent on making creative content, it's not like it's free extra time. I really hate the passion wage. It's like saying, “Since it's a good opportunity and you seem to like it, why don't you just sacrifice for us!” I don't follow their logic.

“Passion wages” are most prevalent in fields that require mentoring from a superior, notably the fashion, beauty and culinary industries, as well as those in which a connection is pivotal to finding a job, such as creative industries like art and comics. 

For weekly publishing or for certain genres of comics, it is nearly impossible to meet the deadline without the help of assistants, but there are not many comic writers who can afford to pay the minimum wage to an assistant. Actually, it would be the world of comics where the passion wage issue is most grave.

They say people in TV stations are searching for victims of the passion wage system [for their news coverage]. Why don't you search closer and take a look around? Ask questions to your [poorly paid, entry-level] assistant directors or floor directors.

Actually, it is not only limited to the Lie Sang-bong case. Passion wages can be found almost everywhere in art and culture world. I once worked in that field and overheard one writer say, “Those young kids nowadays want easy money. One day, he or she even asked me to offer 1 million Korean won for monthly payment!” [equivalent to 909 US dollars, about 100 dollars higher than the minimum wage]. After I heard that, I’ve decided to run away from that area.

Regarding people's arguments that the unpaid internship system is used in many other countries and in certain fields, one Twitter user stressed: 

In the case of abusing the unpaid internship system, the Italian art field would be one of the worst cases. Unpaid apprenticeships can continue over the course of two to three years. In the case of Japan, even famous architects use unpaid interns. But that does not change the fact that it is wrong. Do you think it is okay to have such system in Seoul, just because unpaid interns are common in the art world in the United States? 

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