Malicious exploitation of the extreme desire for employment gave birth to the term passion pay in modern-day Korea. Companies hold hostage the passion of the youth and in return demand excessive labor with low payment. Disguised in the name of passion, passion pay takes advantage of young job seekers blinded by the aspiration of a well-paved career path. The time has come to shed light upon the issue and lift the blinds off of our generation being intoxicated by passion pay throughout the industries of music, fashion, and film, just to name a few.
Passion pay, a compound word of the terms passion and pay , bruises countless industries. The young generations who are the building blocks of our society are being extracted of unjust labor by the more powerful economic entities such as corporations, employers or the industrial structure itself. For the young generation, passion has been the magic word that justifies the undue treatment which very much crosses the line. Such problems are most difficult to solve when the larger economic entities enforcing passion pay shape the structure itself, as is the case with the Korean music industry.
The Creative Forces of Music Discouraged
The Korean music industry on the surface seems to be at its height of popularity, along with its global influence due to the continuously prosperous market of the K-Pop empire. However, behind the glossed up idol bands are myriads of unknown and underrecognized musicians playing jazz, rock, hip-hop and other independent genres of non K-Pop—in other words, less popular music. The balance of such popular K-Pop music and non K-Pop music should be restored for the health of the Korean music industry in the long run.
The balance, however, cannot possibly be established when the structure within the music industry hardly profits the artists themselves. Even the most popular K-Pop artist Psy, who has recorded an unprecedented number of 28.6 million sales of music files online for “Gangnam Style” (2012), has received 36 million won of royalty throughout his promotion for the song, a relatively small portion considering its worldwide fame.
The same tragedy applies to the indie band BolBalgan Sachungi. They were one of the rare indie bands who managed to score number one on the music chart in 2017. They both composed and wrote the song, but their profit ended at only about 70 million won.
K-Pop is a completely different story. K-Pop stars thus do not ultimately depend on music itself as their main source of income. Based on their fame attained by music, they look for other routes of success. The most profitable ones are as follows: being in commercial advertisements, appearing in music festivals, making debuts in TV dramas, becoming actors in musicals, procuring their own brands of perfume, and even creating apps.
However, such investments are only possible when there is a significant amount of capital, usually from large agencies that less popular, indie groups are not a part of. Moreover, it is unhealthy for the music industry itself to make it difficult for the artists to profit from the music alone.
Who would want to make music in the first place when they cannot make a living out of their music? Telling aspiring artists that they cannot succeed with their artistic production unless they gain fame by acting in TV dramas or attending events frustrates their creative motives. The current structure mistakenly equals success in music with fame as an all-round entertainer, which much reduces the colors from the music market.
Therefore, it is extremely difficult for music-related professions within the industry to be paid justly according to their amount of work. Indie bands and musicians of other genres are, most of the times, paid with their passion . Suffering from such a distorted profit structure may further lead to mistreatment issues.
Lesser-known musicians that are also a part of an agency are also employees hired by a larger company, contractor or an agency. If they cannot profit much from the sales of their not-so-popular music, further support of the capital for them to branch off to other paths of income will be nonexistent. They may have to do unwanted jobs or do jobs with unjust payment since the pressure from the agency is hard to ignore, and may fall in to the trap of passion pay. Such problems do not only pertain to the artists themselves but also to the composers, producers, musical engineers, lyricists, and vocal coaches.
Structure Forces Passion Pay
Consumers of music, namely the general public, purchase musical productions through distributors—the most renowned ones being Melon, Bugs or Genie in Korea. When a song is sold to a customer through such distributing companies, the artists themselves that perform the songs are given six percent of the entire profit. 10 percent of it goes to the composers, lyricists or the arranger.
▲ Music platform PeerTracks collaborates with blockchain-based platform Muse
Now, the production companies are given 44 percent of the profit and the distributors also receive 40 percent of the sales, more than six times larger in amount compared to the performers of the music, such as the artists themselves.
Likewise, passion pay is happening on two entirely different levels. First, the structure itself is currently acting as the larger, more powerful entity that isforcing passion pay out of the artists of the Korean music scene. The artists themselves are not being given enough credit for their endeavors within the current market, clearly targeted to profit the more powerful associations in the industry.
Second, such structure leads to financial difficulties, which branches into other problems. For example, there are countless cases where the music engineers working in the recording studio are not paid appropriately. The people that usually hire them persuade them into thinking that such job experience would help them with their future careers in the music business. The manager of the studio usually threatens the engineers by saying that others could easily replace their current positions. They rarely get time off from their work and welfare is nowhere to be found. However, when the structural problem is not fixed, it is difficult for the latter form of passion pay to disappear.
Another issue is brought up with the streaming service, which is the delivery of music without the necessity of downloading the music files to devices. Paid streaming music subscription is one of the most popular forms of streaming services when certain monthly fees will allow the consumers to access countless music files. The problem is that their monthly fees are insufficient to profit the artists.
In December 2016, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism set out a Music Transmission Fee Improvement Measure to amend the structures that do not favor the musicians, leading to further passion pay issues in the industry. The royalty paid to artists that is earned from streaming and downloading increased by at least 17 percent to 91 percent at most starting last February. However, with respect to the streaming service , no amendments were made with the ratio of 60:40 for the creator to licensee.
Solution within the Music Industry
Along with a considerate set of regulations that will encompass not only the downloading segment of the music industry, another possible solution for profiting the artists is by developing other services that will patch the holes in the structural issues. One possible solution could be by using the system of a block chain. Such a method will not only put an end to the large amount of illegal downloads but will also solve the unjust structural issue.
Block chain is a security technology that can secure the entire process of data creation and management until its distribution. It is different from other networks in that first, it becomes much easier to take care of copyright issues because each music file can be tagged to the rightful owners. Therefore, there is no need to enroll their names to central organizations such as the Korea Music Copyright Association.
Second, it will solve the structural issues because the system makes it possible to put out music and communicate with fans without necessarily being in a contract with an agency or a music portal site. Block chain technology allows the artists to see how and where their music is being used, how many times their music has been played and even select whether it will be downloads only or streaming only. It gives more power to the artists themselves. With such a system, Token FM, a music service that applies the block chain, has actually given 80 percent of their streaming profits to their artists and 98 percent of their download profits to their artists. Therefore, when consumers pay, their money will be put into the account registered in a block chain, making it possible for the artists to reach out to their consumers directly, without the intermediaries.
Such is merely an example of what could be done. It certainly has its drawbacks as it is difficult for the artists themselves to attach block chain technology to their own music files, as it is a much unknown process, especially in Korea. It is why music sites such as Token FM are helping out with the process, only receiving a small amount of mediation fees. Many other solutions are possible, if only more attention would be given to the underpaid vocalists, performers, musical engineers or studio staff who are mistreated due to the financial difficulties despite their creative endeavors.
Remnants in Other Fragments of Society
The case in the music industry was just the tip of a very hefty and backbiting iceberg. In 2014, renowned South Korean designer Lie Sangbong aroused the public’s attention through his scandal of abusing young designers for cheap labor. It has been revealed that workers were paid extremely low monthly wages, in which apprentices and interns were paid 100,000 won and 300,000 won, respectively. Lie is also the Chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of Korea (CFDK). Holding such a prestigious position in the fashion industry, he is expected to serve as a role model, and yet was the biggest exploiter of youth labor forces in the industry.
▲ Designer Lie Sangbong
Likewise, the film and broadcasting industry has also been long known to have abused labor forces. Lee Hanbit, a former employee of CJ E&M, was found dead last year on October 26, right after the last episode of Honsulnamnyeo, a Korean television show he co-produced. A suicide note was left behind, revealing the devastating film industry in which he was constantly insulted and forced into intensive labor day and night, to produce the desired outcome. Lee’s death was a clear social homicide, revealing the seamy side of the broadcasting field that the public was unable to recognize, overshadowed by the flattering screens.
According to a survey on the working conditions of film staff released by the Korean Film Council, the average annual income of the entire staff was 19.7 million won. Despite all the allnighters and physical labor required, staffs were paid with an average monthly salary of only 1.64 million won. In addition, the harsh condition of long working hours remained, with staff working 13 hours per day, and 69.4 percent of surveyors answered to have never gone on vacation. The film industry exerts pressure on the working atmosphere that discourages vacations, making workers believe that these should only be used in emergency situations like marriages, funerals, and maternity leaves.
In conjunction with job seekers, teenagers too, are vulnerable to passion pay. Lee Dahae (’17, Biosystems Medical Sciences) recalls that during her adolescence, she was underpaid working as a taekwondo master. In the meantime, she had also seen some of her close friends being underpaid while working as supervisors in reading rooms. Lee hopes for “a social atmosphere, where minimum hourly payments are guaranteed and labor is no longer taken for granted, to emerge.”
Infiltrating Public Organizations
This rampant trend of passion pay has permeated beyond private companies, extending out to public organizations. Dream Touch for All, a nonprofit education corporation sponsored by the government, has raised criticism by recruiting a large number of unpaid interns for a World NGO conference held in Korea. Earlier, the government has announced to st rengthen the crackdown on illegal practices of youth labor abuses, showing its recognition of this social phenomenon. Critics point out, however, that it is a paradox that the government itself is perpetuating the abuse of young work forces, while it should serve the leading role in eradicating this vicious cycle.
On October 4, an anonymous complaint titled “Seoul National University Hospital pays nurses 360,000 won for first monthly salary” was posted on the Nursing Bamboo Forest Page on Facebook. This news went viral, triggering other nurses to reveal similar cases of mistreatments on social media. For instance, graduate student veterinarians have been working in Konkuk University Hospital for more than 40 hours per week, yet were unable to receive any wages. The hospital claimed that interns were not paid as they were recruited mainly for training purposes, but interns fought back stating that they were doing what should be classified as paid work, since they provided immediate advantage and profit for the employer, or in this case, the hospital.
Meanwhile, passion pay is also a highly contentious issue in Germany. According to Professor Judith Janna Mäert e n s (College of Law), “Internships these days are generally paid in Germany. This is required by the legal situation under the Mindeslohngesetz ,” which was the first-ever national Minimum Wage Act approved by the German Parliament in 2015. Specifically, internships for those with a complete university degree must meet the minimum wage requirements.
Although the enactment of the act has brought about substantial progress with the problem of passion pay in Germany, exploitation and mistreatment still exist, as “shop assistants, people in the cleaning or catering sector, still suffer from low payments,” said Mäertens. She went on to state that when eradicating the roots of passion pay, both in Korea and Germany, “soft - pedalling and underestimating the gravity of passion pay of will get in the way of further progress. Therefore, this is a topic that should be discussed extensively by the public.”
▲ Professor Judith Janna Mäertens (Collegeof Law)
According to the Hyundai Research Institute, a total of 635,000 workers aged 15-29 responded to have received passion pay, which has increased by 200,000 people since year 2011. This sharp rise in young workers receiving passion pay can be attributed to the rising unemployment rate in Korea, reaching 9.8 percent last year, according to Statistics Korea. The intense competition for a limited number of jobs has made many young job seekers in need of competitive advantage. As companies prefer applicants with hands-on experiences on their résumés, most youths endure mistreatment and abuse, as long as they can earn the competitive advantage of working experience.
In addition, this vile loop of passion pay can be attributed to the fear of victims. Even if young workers are underpaid or taken advantage of, they are less likely to report such wrongdoings, as they are the ones desperately in need of accumulating practical experiences. The young job seekers are well aware that they are the minorities quartered lowest in the economic hierarchy in Korea, who are vulnerable to the aftermaths and disadvantages resulting from reporting their employers of harsh working conditions or underpayment.
As previously mentioned, the government portrays its lack of willpower in eradicating this issue. While the government should be undertaking its role as a moral paragon, it is instead indirectly advocating the exploitation of young labor forces. Without a doubt, strenuous initiations must be taken in the National Assembly, spreading awareness and creating an atmosphere to fight for the young laborers. Once this supportive environment is established on the highest level, it is much more likely for the administration to take more practical measures to root out this deep-seated problem.
Previous Attempts to Eradicate Passion Pay
After receiving strident censures from the public, Lie immediately responded with an official apology, stating that he will strive to devise realistic measures and initiate paving the way for a promising working condition for future generations in the fashion sector. At the same time, CFDK announced that they would take this opportunity to sincerely reflect on the labor condition existing in the fashion industry. They also promised to abide by the current labor law, stressing that they will no longer let young job seekers be exploited as cheap labor, but improve in providing practical education and handson experience.
Three years have already passed since the fashion scandal broke out and apologies were made. Yet, the problem of youth exploitation remains unchanged. Back in 2015, the fashion union, part-time job union, youth union, CFDK and congresswoman Jun Soonok established an association to ameliorate the employment environment in the fashion sector; until now, however, no significant difference has been made. Unlike his initial proposal to bring concrete changes to the industry, Lie ended his term as the chairman of the association, failing to bring about any changes.
As an attempt to hypothesize a solution to passion pay among the entire working sector, the Ministry of Labor announced the Intern Guidelines as of the first of January. The guideline provides details on how to reasonably operate work experience programs by including statements such as “in any given company, the number of interns should not exceed 10 percent of the workforce, training period should not be over six months, there should be no extended night or holiday work, all work that is dangerous and harmful should be excluded, and appropriate accident compensation should be given, as well as private health care.” However, these guidelines are merely encouraged to abide by without stringent enforcement.
For a Society that Rightfully Respects Passion
The Intern Guideline is a great commencement that bespeaks society’s recognition of the issue, but does not necessarily have the force of law to provide any clear solution in ending this malicious cycle of abuse. Through assigning professional work to interns, firms enjoyed a cost-saving effect, and the the passion pay phenomenon has been caused mostly due to this misdistribution of wages. Therefore, the Ministry is further encouraged to provide practical legislative regulations, or perhaps even fines, regarding the distribution of wages.
The government has also previously announced its intention of enforcing inspections during the hiring process, to check whether firms are truly obeying the laws and guidelines provided. However, the way such inspections are executed is lacking on a systematic level.
▲ Professor Ulf Mäertens (Division of Global Studies)
In addition, the government should devise practical ways to protect the whistleblowers of such mistreatments in the labor field. Without the whistleblowers, it is nearly impossible for passion pay to be remedied in each work place. Most employees are afraid of facing the repercussions of reporting their employers. Thus, the government must create a legal framework to shield them from potential retaliations inflicted by employers.
As claimed by Professor Ulf Mäertens (Division of Global Studies), in the case of Germany, “the main reason for their relatively good working condition is not due to reasonable politicians, but because of the fact that the working class movement, along with the worker unions, are very strong in Germany.” Likewise, young Korean labor force must take active initiatives to demand their rights for better pay and working condition.
Rather than ceaselessly waiting and relying on changes in legislations and structures of workplaces, changes can also be made by enabling young laborers to defend themselves from further abuses. For this to happen, the establishment of an educational system on labor laws is necessary. Labor forces should be provided with knowledge about laws and policies, such as how to draft contracts, compile evidence of misconduct, and distinguish the blurred lines of underpayment and contractbased zero payment, in order for them to legally take actions in illegal situations.
It is crucial to realize that, regardless of former experiences and professions, it is not a requisite for one to endure mistreatment of any kind; therefore, employers have no right to exploit the passion and diligence of young people. The deeply entrenched culture of profiteering should be abrogated, and it cannot be attained merely with one sector’s active voice. The responsibility is to be shared by each and every sector.