A man lies on a sidewalk in downtown Seoul. Many of the working poor are abandoned on the edge of society and are falling into worse living conditions.
/ Korea Times
By Park Si-soo
Only a handful of people were seen quickening their steps toward a subway station illuminated by dim-lit street poles, when a clock tower at Seoul Station plaza showed midnight, last Thursday. At the same time, a comic book store across the plaza, called “Manhwabang” in Korean, saw its cash register ringing much more often than in daytime.
At 12:35a.m., a weary-looking middle-aged man entered with heavy footsteps, shattering the tranquility of its reading room where six guests were engrossed in the latest cartoon series on worn-out lengthy couches.
“It was a long, tough day. I’m totally exhausted,” he muttered yawning. None of the guests ㅡ all male seemingly in their 40-50s ㅡ looked at him as if it was a daily routine.
The newcomer took off his tainted T-shirt and washed his hands, face and hair in a restroom in the corner. He picked up a comic book on the shelf and began to read it, lying on a couch. He soon fell asleep, snoring. A couple of other guests were dozing off, relying on a fan that barely curbed the tropical night heat.
“Don’t take them as cartoon buffs. This is `home’ for them,” a store clerk whispered. “Many of them are manual workers at construction sites. They leave here between 6 and 7 a.m. and come back around this time.”
The clerk cautiously pointed out a person and said he had “lived” in the store for more than a year.
Sleep under roof
Their belongings were stuffed in a shelf behind the cash register ― backpacks, daily necessities, shirts and pants. One toilet bowl and a faucet were all the restroom had, with a bold-type message written on its entry door saying, “1,000 won ($0.84) for hand washing.”
The clerk said 150,000 won is needed for a one-month stay, but those, who were unable to afford it, pay 4,000 won for one night.
Approximately 159,000 low income earners spend nights in this extreme fashion nationwide ㅡ at Manhwabang, Internet cafes, saunas and even greenhouses, according to the state human rights watchdog. It’s almost five times higher than the number of those sleeping on the streets, the government estimates.
They have a job, which is irregular and manual, so that they are not subject to state aid given to the jobless. But their income was too small to cover fees to move to an inn or lower-grade residential facility. Constant exposure to extreme and unsanitary environments day and night makes them susceptible to disease, extending a vicious circle of poverty, sickness and getting poorer.
But the reality is few opportunities are given to them to break out of the situation, experts said.
A recent research, led by the National Human Rights Commission, provided a pathetic snapshot of what these people, called “working poor,” look like.
On average, they are 52-years-old and make 596,000 won a month. One third of the income was used to sleep “under a roof.” Nearly a quarter of them are manual workers and nearly half live separately from their family. More than 60 percent of them were high school dropouts or with lower academic achievements, the research showed.
“They are abandoned on the edge of the society with no aid or help in sight,” said Ryu Jung-soon, president of the Korea Research and Consulting Institute on Poverty (KRCIP). “They can hardly afford monthly rent for a room and live alone. Many of them are poor enough to benefit from state aid for the poor. With no address registered with the government, however, they are excluded from the list of people subject to state welfare programs.”
To remove the tag of “working poor,” experts said, monthly income should be at least 1.01 million won ㅡ living in an independent room and affording daily necessities.
“With no money deposited, the money is a minimum to stay afloat, seeking chances to climb to higher levels,” said Suk Sang-hoon, a senior researcher at the National Pension Service who conducted an extensive research on working poor. “Those making 860,000 won or less monthly were at risk of falling back to extreme poverty.”
But a research found many working poor worked ten days or less a month. Some even stayed jobless for a couple of months, maintaining their life eating instant noodles and sleeping in such public facilities as comic stores and saunas.
The research, jointly conducted in 2009 by the KRCIP and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seoul, found that nearly 77 percent of 122 people surveyed had no regular job and managed to live by working at construction sites or other low-paying positions just ten days a month or less. While, the research also found their strong will to work ㅡ 48 percent of them said they regularly contact recruiters to have regular jobs ㅡ but at the same time revealed a touch of reality ㅡ 73.8 percent failed to find any job openings.
“The frozen construction business is making their situation worse,” a researcher said.
Low academic achievement
Adding to the woes of the working poor is their academic background. With more than half of the entire population being college graduates, they have fewer and fewer opportunities to find a decent job.
“This society seems not to so much care about how low academic achievers make a living,” said Lee Sung-joo, a teacher at Seoul Technical High School.
According to the National Statistical Office, as of July, 931,000 are jobless. Of them, 47.6 percent or 443,000 were high school graduates and 151,000 were middle school graduates. A primary school diploma is mandatory for all Korean citizens.
“For them, having a high-paying job is all but impossible,” said Lee Byug-hoon, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University. “Those with exceptional skills or techniques may be an exception. But it’s rare.”
“If I were healthy, I would do anything to make money to escape from this nightmare. But now I can barely walk and chew food. Working with this body is putting an extra burden on one’s peers,” a Manhwabang guest said.
Another hurdle ahead of the working poor’s stride toward a better life is their unhealthy bodies. The constant presence of unsanitary spots and chronic malnutrition has made them susceptible to a variety of diseases.
The Korea Center for City and Environment Research found in a survey of 207 homeless that 59 or 28.6 percent were troubled with arthritis, the largest portion, followed by high blood pressure at 27.7 percent and stomach problems at 17.5 percent. Nearly 17 percent had diabetes and 13.1 percent suffered from skin troubles. Four were cancer sufferers and 14 had mental problems.
But none of them regularly received medical treatment and some were not even aware of what disease they had, the survey found.
Experts said the government poured the vast majority of aid resources to the jobless and those sleeping in the street in the belief that those with a monthly income manage to make a living. But now is time to extend helping hands to the working poor, they said.