The altar in central Seoul has all the features typically found at memorials in South Korea: a portrait of the deceased; burning candles; and long-stemmed chrysanthemums. It also has one unconventional item – a cup of instant ramen noodles.
The budget food item may seem out of place in a setting meant as a solemn memorial to a life cut short, but its inclusion provides a hint to the circumstances surrounding the passing of Kim Yong-kyun, a 24-year-old who was killed last month in an accident at a coal-fired power plant a couple of hours southeast of Seoul.
Kim was checking equipment on the night shift when he was pulled into a conveyor belt and crushed. After his death, surveillance camera footage showed Kim had been working alone, instead of making the rounds with a partner.
Labour advocates argued that if Kim had been working with someone, that person could have pulled the plug on the machinery and saved Kim’s life. They also accused his employer of cutting corners to reduce labour costs.
Instant ramen costs only a couple of dollars and is available at any grocery or convenience store, making it a common choice for anyone short on money, time, or both.
Police found three packets of ramen in Kim’s bag and photos of his meagre belongings circulated on social media. The noodles then emerged as an emblem of irregular workers’ plight; Koreans often greet each other with expressions that translate as “Have you had a meal?”, and the young man’s subsistence on cup ramen touched a cultural nerve as it indicated poverty and desperation.
“The demands of the work at the power plant mean that irregular workers on contracts aren’t able to have proper meals and end up eating cup ramen or food from the convenience store,” said Lee Tae-sung, who works at the same power plant Kim worked at and is a spokesman for irregular workers there.
Kim’s death became a rallying cry for many South Koreans who feel that big companies are given free rein by the government to endanger workers by failing to properly train them or follow safety regulations.
Critics also blasted South Korea’s two-tier employment system, where some workers enjoy stable jobs with high wages and benefits, while a growing number are stuck earning much less on temporary contracts. Temporary workers are also more vulnerable to accidents, as they are often less experienced, and at times are assigned to dangerous tasks their permanent co-workers would rather avoid.
Two months before his death, Kim posted a photo of himself on social media holding up a sign asking for a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss the plight of irregular workers.
Kim also had a sad personal story. Born into a working-class family, he had studied and worked to gain a number of certifications he hoped would land him a good job, but at the age of 24, the best he had been able to do was the night shift on a temporary contract earning peanuts.
His case crystallised long-lingering resentment over South Korea’s growing inequality and high youth unemployment.
“The death of this young irregular worker has plunged our society into a deep sadness, and exposed the true nature of that society. It has shown how irresponsible the political establishment is, and how out of touch big business is, and how poor working conditions are,” said Na Do-won, an official from South Korea’s Labour Party.
The attendant outcry was taken up by liberal politicians who pushed for the passage, in late December, of legislation aimed at improving workplace safety, particularly for irregular workers.
The amendment to the industrial safety law was named after Kim Yong-kyun and mandates a number of measures to increase safety and accountability for companies. In particular, the law aims to curb the practice of big companies hiring irregular workers to handle dangerous tasks.
Not everyone is happy about the changes. After the passage of the law, the conservative Chosun newspaper published an editorial complaining that the legislation “harms business activities and treats business owners as potential criminals”.
The editorial called on the government to make business a bigger priority, predicting that the government’s plan to raise the minimum wage and enact stricter regulations would cause many businesses to fold.
“When running a business is a path that leads to prison, where will jobs come from?” it asked. “Don’t we need to improve the safety of business owners too?”
Kim Mi-sook, Kim’s mother, has said she welcomes the passage of the law, but is not moving on yet, and hasn’t yet held a funeral for her son. She has pointed to data, released through the office of ruling party lawmaker Park Jeung, which shows that from 2008 to 2018, 12 workers lost their lives in accidents at the same power plant where her son died.
She is calling for the power plant to agree to allow an independent inspector of her choosing to assess the workplace and determine the precise circumstances of his death, and to check for any other unsafe working conditions. The protest movement that spurred the passage of the law is also vowing to continue, holding weekly rallies while pushing for a thorough investigation into Kim’s death, and maintaining the sombre memorial in central Seoul.
“I still can’t accept that my son is gone. The passage of this law won’t bring him back, but at least I can honourably face up to his memory now,” Kim told a South Korean broadcaster last week.