South Korea’s elder poverty is arguably the country’s least discussed serious problem, but The Story of Imgyejang 임계장 이야기 by Jo Jeong-jin 조정진 is bringing the issue to the fore. Shocking 43.8% of South Korea’s elderly live in poverty, triple the OECD average rate of 14.8%. Pension or other retirement plan is scarce, and the elderly must continue perform subsistence-level labor late into their lives, facing abuse and awful work conditions.
Through a series of essays, Jo calmly tells the story of his struggle as an “Imgyejang” - the derogatory acronym for the “the old temporary contract worker” 임시계약직노인장. After having retired from 38 years of career as an office worker, Jo at age 60 had to once again search for work to make a living. He got fired from his first job at the bus company when he was injured at work. Jo then found work as a doorman for a condo complex, where he regularly faced abuses from the residents while cleaning trash and handling other odd work. The old temp workers, according to Jo, are easy to hire, easy to be injured, and easy to be fired.
Jo recounts a conversation with another doorman: “You think doormen are people. You’re wrong. How can a person breathe through this pile of waste? How can a human sleep in this tiny box? How can a person eat a meal in this basement with asbestos powder flying around? If you came to this condo thinking you would be treated like a person, you should leave. You can’t do this job if you think doormen are humans.” Jo recalls: “When I heard this, it felt like I was liberated from pain. Now I knew. I didn’t come to this condo complex to be treated like a person. So I won’t be sad because I am not treated like one.”