The Korea Herald


[Us and Them] Are all jobs equally respected?

Blue-collar jobs are getting more respect as of late, but there’s still a long way to go

By Kan Hyeong-woo

Published : Nov. 1, 2021 - 11:56

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A well-known Korean saying goes, “There is no superiority or inferiority in a job.” That means all jobs are equally valuable and honorable, so no one should be treated differently based on how they make their living. In today’s South Korea, however, the saying appears to hold little weight.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by job-searching website Saramin, more than half of all respondents said they thought there were superior and inferior jobs. When asked why, the majority of people who said so mentioned differences in income level and how certain jobs were viewed by others.

Almost 60 percent of the respondents said they had judged others based on occupation. Social perceptions about certain jobs affected their thinking process the most, they said.

In another survey conducted the same year, the Seoul Metropolitan Government asked 48,000 residents of the capital about factors behind discrimination. Of the respondents, 39.1 percent said occupation was a major factor in discrimination, while 50.8 percent mentioned income level and 43.5 percent pointed to education. Multiple answers were allowed.

“When we say there is no superiority or inferiority in a job, it means all types of labor are necessary for a society to move forward. So we should recognize the value of each occupation,” said Lee Byoung-hoon, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University.

“Whether you get paid a lot or relatively less or whether you are in a higher or lower position, if we do not have all kinds of labor, it could hinder society and cause trouble. But in the world we live in now, superior and inferior jobs exist.”

Lee says it is necessary to differentiate between distinctions and discrimination, saying there are reasonable distinctions between occupations. Certain skilled professionals earn more money and receive higher assessments due to the rarity of those skills. But discrimination is a different story, he said.

To eradicate unjust discrimination based on occupation, the professor emphasized the importance of protecting and supporting people in blue-collar jobs.

“It has to start from changing the perspective of employers. They should help employees feel entitled, so they can be more proactive,” he said.

“Laborers, who are usually in a position with less power, should be given rights and a system in which they can raise their voices if they need to.”

Lee added that the government must fulfill its role of enforcing the law. Even with rules in place to prevent occupational discrimination, unless penalties are severe, the regulations mean nothing for the more vulnerable. 

Workplace harassment

The death of a 59-year old janitor at Seoul National University recently sparked a public outcry.

On June 26, she was found dead in the staff lounge of the university’s dormitory building and police found no evidence of homicide or suicide. The labor union alleged that she had experienced extreme stress due to workplace harassment by her supervisor.

An investigation by the Ministry of Employment and Labor found that Seoul National University had committed workplace harassment by requiring its janitors to take a written test that was mostly unrelated to their job.

The ministry also found that the supervisor had harassed the workers by insisting that they dress in a certain way and by evaluating their attire, despite the absence of a dress code.

The janitor’s death was just another in a long string of cases involving workplace harassment and mistreatment of those on the lower rungs of society.

Last year, a security guard at an apartment complex took his own life after being subjected to degrading treatment by some residents. The case fanned public outrage, and instances of mistreatment and assaults of security guards, janitors, taxi drivers and others in so-called “lowly” positions have filled headlines since.

Moving in the right direction

But changes are slowly taking root.

In a study published in the Journal of the Korean Official Statistics in 2017, researchers analyzed trends in occupational prestige between 1990 and 2016.

The study found that the differences in each job’s occupational prestige had shrunk over the years while their relative standing remained stable. Blue-collar workers such as construction workers and welders had begun to receive higher scores as time went on, indicating that people viewed them more positively, but judges still remained at the top of the list.

Social media and online platforms have played a significant role in providing a closer look at jobs that are not usually in the limelight for various reasons.

Kim Jin-seong runs a YouTube channel titled “The Story of a 20-Something Bus Driver.” His channel has nearly 70,000 subscribers. He has been a bus driver for less than two years.

“When I first started driving a bus, there were people who had negative views (of my job). There were more negative perspectives in the past, especially from older people. They said driving is driving no matter how good you are,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

“But social awareness of this job has become much better than before. Bus drivers get paid more. Unlike in the past, when companies would make us pay for damages in case of an accident, now they pay for it.”

He said he thinks there is no superiority or inferiority in a job, but there are superior or inferior people, mentioning that he has seen many bus drivers who do not use their turn signals on the road. If bus drivers follow the rules of the road, he added, there is no reason for people to look down on them.

“This job can be a stable source of income if you do it long enough without accidents, so it’s not a bad job,” he said.

“Someone has to do this job for society to go on.”


The concept of “us” is a strong force in Korean culture, and to be counted as “one of us” in any group comes with privileges big and small within its boundaries. However, for those who fall outside the boundaries of “normal,” life in Korea is riddled with hurdles and sometimes open hatred. In a series of articles, we take a closer look at the biases that exist in Korea, and the lives of those branded as “them” by the mainstream society. -- Ed.