In a competitive, status-conscious society, these and other workers say they feel intense shame doing manual work. Some also say they feel guilty working such rough jobs after years of expensive cram schools and college. And many younger workers, having grown up in an increasingly affluent nation, consider physical labor a part of the bygone, impoverished eras of their parents and grandparents.
“These days, many South Koreans think they have the right to be white collar,” said Lee Byung-hee, senior economist at the Korea Labor Institute, a government-linked research organization based in Seoul. “But their expectations hit the dark reality of this economy, where people have no choice but to go into the blue-collar work force.”
Labor experts say the number of former office workers who are moving into blue-collar jobs has increased as South Korea has suffered its worst unemployment since the 1997 Asian currency crisis. According to the National Statistical Office, the unemployment rate has risen to 3.8 percent — low by American standards, but high for this Asian economic powerhouse.
Many of the unemployed can rely on traditional forms of economic support, like living with family. And despite the slowdown, jobs are still to be found in this prosperous society, where the neon-lit bustle of cities like Seoul has not missed a beat.
Still, Jeong Seung-beom, whose small Seoul-based firm helps recruit workers for South Korea’s fishing industry, says that this year is the busiest he has seen, even better than 1997, when white-collar workers also flooded his office.
He said his company, the Sea Job Placement Center, now places about 80 people a month, four times the number a year ago. Mr. Jeong said most of the new recruits were laid-off office workers or university students who could no longer afford tuition. Many of the newcomers are so woefully unprepared for the physical demands of fishing, he said, he tries to scare them during orientation sessions.
On a recent morning in his cramped office, six young men showed up with gym bags, ready to make the trip to Kunghang, near the nation’s southwest tip. Among them was Mr. Lee, the former condominium developer.
Mr. Jeong warned them that they might get seasick or homesick, or even be injured or killed on the crab boats, which can spend 14 hours a day at sea. When he paused for questions, one man in his 20s asked if he could go home during holidays.
“Crabs don’t take holidays,” Mr. Jeong scoffed.
Undaunted, all six went to Kunghang later that day.
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