“I won’t take any more”: South Korean Starbucks baristas rebel | Labor rights

Seoul, South Korea – On weekday afternoons, Starbucks in South Seoul’s Yangjae district fills up with groups of office workers looking for after-lunch refreshments.

A line forms the counter with the store’s hinged glass doors as white-collar workers line up to order hot and cold drinks. Seasonal specialties include Lavender Beige Oat Latte topped with Blueberry Leaves and New Year’s Citrus Tea topped with Lemongrass and an Orange Slice.

“We come here with colleagues after lunch because we know that everyone will be able to find something they like,” Yoon Min-ju, who works at an interior design company nearby, told Al Jazeera.

“In small cafes, they usually only offer basic coffee and tea. At Starbucks, even people who dislike coffee or are on a diet can order comfortably, ”she said.

Starbucks is so popular in South Korea that it can seem like there is an outlet on almost every block. The country is Starbucks’ fourth largest market, with 1,611 stores and nearly 20,000 workers, whom the company calls “partners.”

But despite the brand’s popularity – based on its sprawling menu, association with the American middle class, and branded products – the coffee giant now faces a challenge to its image in South Korea in the form of a careful examination of working conditions in its stores. The way workers react could portend a shift in union activism in a country with a history of heated protest.

In October, when the company hosted an event featuring reusable cups with the purchase of a drink, baristas’ fatigue and frustrations overflowed.

On Blind, an app where employees can speak out anonymously about working conditions, workers have complained about low wages and poor conditions. Some have told horror stories of up to 650 drinks being ordered at a time, while struggling to pour, mix and serve an endless stream of customers without making a mistake, smiling and holding friendly customer service.

South Korea has a long history of loud protests by unions and union activists [File: Ahn Young-joon/AP]

In December, Ryu Ho-jeong, a left-wing politician, released the results of an investigation that found 613 Starbucks employees sought mental health treatment due to stress at work in 2020, a more than 10-fold increase. five compared to 2015. The survey also found that accidents at work had tripled compared to the previous year.

To call attention to their plight, the workers hired a flatbed truck with a massive illuminated screen to drive from downtown Seoul to the bustling Gangnam district in the south of the city, spreading their grievances to the hordes of customers who congregate at Starbucks stores across town after lunch. The screen contained text that addressed the company with messages such as “Partners are your greatest asset. Don’t forget that ”and“ We won’t take any more ”.

The protest grabbed national headlines and succeeded in securing concessions from Starbucks Korea, which pledged to hire 1,600 more workers to ease conditions at their stores. The company, which entered South Korea in 1999 at a time when brewed coffee was new, also promised to introduce pay increases based on seniority and performance.

As the Starbucks workers fought their battle, the mainstays of the labor organization in South Korea noticed how a group of young workers in the service industry managed to garner both attention and material gain.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a leading labor group with more than one million members in industries across the country, praised the actions of Starbucks workers and encouraged them to work towards forming a union.

“By forming a union, workers can respond to their grievances,” KCTU said in a statement.

Starbucks protesters, mostly between the ages of 20 and 30, swept the invitation to unionize to the left, saying that instead of engaging in collective bargaining with Starbucks management, they could communicate more effectively their needs through innovative tactics such as truck demonstration.

In South Korea, unions have been around for decades in shipyards and factories, but recent years have seen organizing efforts at some of the country’s most innovative companies, including tech giants Kakao and Naver.

“Militant struggle”

Yu Gyu-chang, professor of human resources management at Hanyang University, told Al Jazeera that South Korea’s work culture is increasingly concerned with the well-being of workers.

“Social pressure has increased with the voices of millennials and millennials,” Yu said.

The increase in the organization of work comes at a time when inequality is a central topic in South Korean public discourse, reflected in the pop culture phenomenon Squid Game, as many in the country are looking for ways to earn their money. living stably in an increasingly fierce economy.

According to data released in December by the Ministry of Labor, the unionization rate in South Korea increased in 2020 to 14.2%, from 12.5% ​​the previous year.

“Many young people want to work in companies that have unions because they recognize that unions can offer protections and help them get the benefits they want,” Lee Byoung-hoon, expert in industrial relations at Chung-Ang University.

“What they don’t like is the old style of trade union activism in Korea, the militant struggle, the fighting and the protests.

Ryu, the politician, said in a statement that her investigation showed conditions for Starbucks workers still need to be improved.

“There will inevitably be a second and a third demonstration of trucks,” she said.

While their victory is incomplete, the way Starbucks workers have captured the attention of their bosses – and the country – could portend a shift in South Korean labor organizing away from the conventional protests of yesteryear and towards an era where workers are looking for new ways to communicate their demands.

“For the protests of the younger generation, more important than the success, failure or attention it receives is that it does not want its arguments or its intentions to be distorted, even a little”, said Lim Myung-ho, professor of psychology at Dankook University.

“They have the confidence that they can make their opinion known without outside help,” Lim said. “There will be more cases like Starbucks.”


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