Credit: Public domain.
South Korea’s labor market is a bifurcated one. Generally, a regular employment 정규직 means a full-time job, employed directly by the company to which the service is rendered, with guaranteed benefits such as the four major insurances 4대 보험 (health insurance, national pension, unemployment insurance and industrial accident insurance) and protection against arbitrary termination. On the other hand, irregular employment 비정규직 generally involves working for a subcontractor, on a part-time or limited time basis, with little or no benefits.
During South Korea’s high-growth era of the 1970s and 80s, all employment was regular employment, with temp work simply considered illegal (but tolerated.) Irregular employment was formalized in the late 1990s, as South Korea was undergoing the East Asian Financial Crisis and attempted to create a flexible labor market based on advice from the International Monetary Fund, which bailed out South Korea during the credit crunch. Today, approximately 13.6m Koreans are regular employees, while 8.1m Koreans are irregular employees - typically, restaurant servers, hotel maids, medical assistants and day laborers.
According to the Bureau of Statistics 통계청, the government body responsible for collecting official statistics, the gap between regular and irregular employment has never been wider. As of August 2022, regular employees on average were paid KRW 3.5m per month while irregular employees got KRW 1.9m per month – the widest gap on record. Among regular workers, 84.5% received paid vacation time, including parental leave; among irregular workers, only 38.5% did.