Pandemic Woes Bring U.S.-Style Gig Economy to South Korea

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit Seoul with full force last winter, mime and circus artist Kim Chan-su started his “two-job” life — as a courier and a circus clown. When not juggling on stage, he delivers meals and drinks from fried chicken to coffee in his Hyundai Tucson SUV, starting at noon and often finishing past midnight.

Even with two jobs, the 24-year veteran of circus shows still earns “a lot less” than what he used to make from a single occupation before the pandemic. In a peak month, he earned 4.5 million won ($4,100) from delivery. Even that was halved in October as competition grew in the delivery business while circus shows wasn’t fully back.

“There is nothing I find happy about it. To make a living I have no other choice,” said Kim, 43. He now spends hours sitting behind the wheel of his car until his tablet computer rings with another fried chicken order.

People like Kim highlight the growing group of people that unemployment headlines fail to capture. They are not included inthe 4.2% jobless rate in South Korea’s latest data yet many have lost income — often working fewer hours or going from full-time to part-time status. They are willing to work an extra job, if they can find one.

This year, the number of people employed but who want to earn more because of insufficient income spiked. During the April-June period in South Korea, that number rose to a record 1.2 million, a 55% jump from a year earlier and more than double from 2015, before declining slightly to 1.1 million in the third quarter.

“It shows that they find their income is not enough,” said Yi Junga, a researcher at Korea Employment Information Service. “It looks like there are quite a lot of people who got switched from full time to part time.”

Moonlighting has taken off in South Korea as a result of such pressures. While South Koreans do not typically take a second job as much as doAmericans or Canadians, private polls show interest is growing in “gig” work, freelancing or running a business in addition to working a full-time job.

Interest Rising

According to a poll of 642 salaried workers by job portal JobKorea last month, 84% said they are interested in moonlighting. Another poll of 1,599 people by Incruit, an online jobs portal, showed that 13.5% of respondents already had a side job while another 35.7% said they were considering one. Young Koreans have begun using the term “N-job” to note holding multiple jobs.

Though interest is high, finding that second gig is also proving difficult during the pandemic. Moonlighting peaked in 2019 with 470,000 people having work income in addition to their main job. The number dropped to 430,000 during the first nine months of 2020, accounting for just 1.6% of those employed, according to the opposition People Power Party member Choo Kyung-ho’s office, which compiled Statistics Korea’s data.

“That means there isn’t even a place to moonlight,” said Choo, a lawmaker who was former vice finance minister.

When an international development group canceled a job offer citing the pandemic, Lee Heeju started taking classes that led to a second job. After putting her daughter to sleep, the 30-year-old illustrator spent an hour or two every day to create a short e-book with tips on buying a house for young couples. The PDF file is sold for 12,000 won to readers interested in how her family got the rights to buy a home. She produced two e-books and is working on a third.

“I don’t make a lot of money but it is enough to buy snacks for my baby,” she said. The field for selling knowledge online in the form of PDF files is popular among people seeking extra income.

The field is also competitive.

“There are people who make a lot of money by endlessly promoting their e-books,” Lee said. “I also took classes on two job and observed how people promoted theirs. But there were a lot more people than I thought and it’s hard to get noticed.”

For at least one young Korean, a moonlighting gig became their main occupation. When Kim Ji-hyun’s employer began laying off staff in April citing slumping sales amid the pandemic, she decided it was time to make a career shift.

Kim, who introduces herself as an “N-Jobler,” used to wake up at 5 a.m. to source items, register products on Amazon and Naver and reply to customers’ questions before her 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. office job as a beauty brand marketer.

“I had this plan for a long while before I worked at a company,” the 24-year-old said. “A lot of people think working at a company is stable but I thought it was very much the opposite.”

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