Korean public care workers fight to save quality care and decent jobs in Seoul

Workers of the Seoul’s Public Agency for Social Service (Seoul PASS) members of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union (KPTU) have been massively mobilised over the past months. Now hundreds went again on strike last 27 July against Seoul City Council’s deliberate choice to de-fund municipal public care services.

Workers of the Seoul’s Public Agency for Social Service (Seoul PASS) members of the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union (KPTU) have been massively mobilised over the past months. Now hundreds went again on strike last 27 July  against Seoul City Council’s deliberate choice to de-fund municipal public care services by allocating only 33% of the budget needed to operate services and triggering the closure of Seoul PASS public care centres as a result.

Seoul public care workers group on strike in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Government Office, 27 July 2023 – Photo: KPTU

The Seoul Metropolitan Government refuses to enter into meaningful dialogue with public care workers unions, choses to favour private care providers

Ahead of the strike, the KPTU-Seoul PASS branch held a press conference in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Government office calling publicly on the Mayor of Seoul to engage in direct negotiations with the union over the Seoul PASS workers’ wage structure reform.

Last June, the Seoul Metropolitan Government had responded to repeated calls by the KPTU to engage in good faith collective bargaining with a decision to unilaterally reform the wage structure in a way that is clearly detrimental to care workers’ conditions, forcing a shift from a salary-based wage system to an hourly one. The implications of such move for care workers and users are well-known and documented: under an hourly wage system, any minute of caring time is accounted as a “cost” and therefore cut to the bone. Workers get pressured to end their tasks in the minimum possible time; care work is dehumanised as there is no more time for empathy and for creating a caring connection – at the very heart of caring work; and care service users lose quality care services, while workers end getting burned out, underpaid and often leaving the profession out of exhaustion. 

As the public care system PASS cannot operate under such conditions, the unilateral decision by the  Seoul Metropolitan Government amounts to giving a clear advantage to private care providers, whose services can only be afforded by households with higher incomes, and whose services are of lower quality as their working conditions.

Seoul public care services are already disrupted as workers face the possibility of unpaid wages as early as August, likely leading to an employment crisis and letting users down. Of the 7 public childcare centres operated by the Seoul PASS, one has already experienced disruptions and a further 6 are likely to do so within the year.  In addition, all 12 Comprehensive Home Care Centres (CHCC) are now at risk of service disruption and eventual closure, starting with 5 facilities in August. The Seoul Metropolitan Government originally planned to reduce the 12 CHCCs to 4 CHCCs. 

If the Seoul Metropolitan Government doesn't change its policy on Seoul PASS and the Seoul City Council doesn't allocate additional funds for Seoul PASS, all workers will eventually face overdue wages that will force them to leave, leaving the service users to fend for themselves. The Head of the Seoul Central PASS Authority resigned last 25 July, with more than a year left in his term. Since then, an official of the Seoul Metropolitan Government has become the acting Director of Seoul PASS, a move which leads to believe that the Seoul Metropolitan Government will continue to pursue its policy of weakening the service capacity of Seoul PASS to downsize and undermine public care.

The KPTU Seoul PASS Branch presents its demands to the Central PASS, calling for the strengthening of its role in securing and expanding public care through PASS – Photo: KPTU

A regressive step for Seoul and South Korea, with an overwhelming negative impact on women 

The creation and expansion of PASS was an important achievement for care service for better care workers’ conditions – until them largely provided by vulnerable, underpaid, ununionized women - and a major achievement of the Korean public service labour movement. 

Thanks to the establishment of PASS, 430 professional care workers directly employed by the local authorities have been able to deliver quality long-term care for older people, activity support for the disabled, and childcare to nearly 30,000 users since September 2019, including about 23,790 hours of emergency care services during the COVID-19, making a significant contribution to bridging the care gap in South Korea. The establishment of PASS also translated into improved working conditions for Korean care workers, which in turn delivered better quality care and resulted in higher service user satisfaction.  The case was recently featured internationally as a good practice in public care in a KPTU-PSI policy brief on “The municipalisation of care service providers in South Korea”. 

The abrupt, unilateral decision by Seoul Metropolitan Government to stop funding PASS rolls back such advances, and is a regressive policy choice that move back the burden of care on women, penalizes users and the lowest income households in South Korea. Unless this decision is halted and reversed, many Korean care users will find themselves excluded and at a disadvantage as they seek quality, affordable care and the PASS promise of decent working conditions for Korean care workers will fail to materialise. 

KPTU and PSI denounce the move and call on the Seoul Metropolitan Government to reconsider its decision 

KPTU informed its global union federation PSI of this situation, which raised the issue with the global local and regional government association United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and its Metropolitan branch Metropolis, drawing their attention to the contradictions of the policies of the Seoul Metropolitan Government with the concept of “Caring Cities” and the “Caring Systems” Policy Paper presented at the 2022 UCLG World Congress in Daejeon, South Korea.

In a letter by PSI General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli and Regional Secretary for Asia Pacific Kate Lappin to both organisations PSI says: 

This situation seems to us very much at odds with the primary mission caring cities such as Seoul should fulfil that is to provide accessible, equitable, quality, gender-transformative care services for all. Besides, it is also in contradiction with the vision and the recommendations contained in the “Caring Systems” Policy Paper presented at the 2022 UCLG World Congress in Daejeon which embraces the principles of equitable access and adequate public funding for public care services;  meaningful involvement of users, care workers and their trade unions in the design of the service; the respect of the labour rights of care workers and the establishment of solid social dialogue and collective bargaining with their trade unions”.

The KPTU Seoul PASS branch receiving a solidarity fund from the KPTU Healthcare Workers’ Solidarity Division – Photo: KPTU

The KPTU Seoul PASS Branch received solidarity from the Canadian Union of Public Service Employees (CUPE), visiting the KPTU Seoul PASS branch office.

CUPE has successfully won public funding for public care services in Canada as a result of its nationwide ‘FixLongTermCare’ campaign aiming at de-privatising long-term elderly care, demanding the Canadian Government take over and invest in long-term elder care homes and set a national service quality standard and safe, decent working conditions for staff across all Canadian provinces.

A delegation of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) visiting the KPTU Seoul PASS branch office in Seoul at the time of the Seoul PASS strike - Photo: KPTU

The campaign was launched in 2020, when Canada recorded the worst score of COVID-19 deaths in elderly care services worldwide: four out of five deaths have either been residents or staff of a long-term care home, largely run by private companies, some of which actively engage in tax avoidance.

Launched in 2020, the campaign contributed to the 2021 decision of the Government of Saskatchewan to invest 80 million Canadian dollars in long-term care starting with municipalizing two facilities through substantial public investment; to plan 82 renewal projects ; and 13 new public elder care homes in rural and remote areas of the province.

*This article was written in collaboration with KPTU.