From Precarity to Worker Power: Through the Case of South Korean Tenant Shopkeepers' Organizing

Monday, 16 July 2018: 16:00
Oral Presentation
Yewon LEE, University of California at Los Angeles, USA
Can new sources of worker precarity become venues for organizing and introduce novel ways to leverage worker power? I examine the case of South Korea’s tenant shopkeepers who have recently established a national profile for their organizing efforts against the displacement of their shops. When scarce urban space itself becomes a speculative commodity in high demand, it is not only the urban poor residents who suffer. I analyze how the false conception of the relationship between landowners and tenant-shopkeepers as a contract between equal parties, upheld by the propertied citizenship regime, has become a source of dispossession, exploitation, and enduring inequality. However, the intensifying space-based urban precarity has also emboldened tenant shopkeepers to develop a collective identity as precarious workers. In South Korea, as in other late-industrialized countries, the self-employed sector remains a high proportion of the working population—one out of four workers are self-employed—and especially commercial tenancy occupies a symbolic place as a fallback source of employment. When the protected wage jobs moves out of one’s reach—due to a low level of education and skill—or when access to the such jobs are constrained by one’s age, many turn to commercial tenancy to make a living. This trend has boosted tenant shopkeepers’ symbolic power as workers. I examine how this symbolic position of commercial tenancy has heightened awareness of urban space-based precarity and facilitated alternative alliances and visions for redistributing rights to the city. This case study contributes to the literature that rethinks the category of precarious work by demonstrating how the shopkeepers’ seemingly privileged position as autonomous and flexible workers turns into the basis of precarity and how their dispersed workplaces, which physically isolate these workers from each other, turn into a broad network of trenches that increase the visibility of the tenant shopkeepers’ resistance.