Savage internship … fueled by ‘policy fiasco’

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in <Voice of People> on Dec.23, 2011, reporting the collapse of a vocational high school senior student who had been doing an internship in Kia Motors Gwangju factory since Aug. The report clearly indicates how internship whose purpose is to provide senior students of vocational high schools with practical work experience and possibly a chance to secure prospective jobs has turned into a simple channel of providing cheap irregular workers to the industry. All rights regarding this post stay with the author of original article of with <Voice of People> and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. The original article of this post (in Korean) can be found in the link at the bottom.

Savage internship … fueled by ‘policy fiasco’

Jeong Hye-gyoo 정혜규 (jhk@vop.co.kr)

광주기독병원
Gwangju Christian Hospital where student Kim (18) who suffered brain hemorrhage while overworking in Kia Motors Gwangju factory is hospitalized ⓒ Voice of People (VOP) 민중의소리

Last 17th, a senior student of a vocational high school Kim (18) who had been doing an internship at Kia Motors Gwangju factory collapsed from a brain hemorrhage. With the report on this incident, media attention focuses on the faulty reality of the internship program. In particular, the existence of young student workers who, against the Labor Standards Act (LSA), suffer from double shift night works, long period labors is viscerally revealed. For the case of Kim himself, he is known to have overworked for about 60 hours a week, against 46 hours a week legal limit in LSA.

In the education circle, people point out that at the other side of ‘brutal internship’ lies the ‘Lee Myung-bak government’s employment rate oriented policy for vocational high schools’. As the current government mentions the possible restructuring of vocational high schools and refers the employment rate target as the criteria, schools tend to send students to work places as if dumping them out.

Restructuring policy for vocational high schools that fall short of employment rate goal … pressure for actual schools

Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MoEST) had announced ‘2012 work plan’ three days before student Kim collapsed. According to the plan, they would prop up the employment rate of vocational high schools from last year’s 20% to 60% next year and introduce an ‘advisory policy for reform’ in which vocational schools that were weak for employment would be advised to change to general schools or to merge with other schools. In fact, the government is known to devise a plan to reduce the number of vocational high schools from 691 to about 440.

This policy worked as a pressure to schools. One high school official in Jeonnam said “As government emphasized employment rather than college entrance to vocational high schools, everything changed. At the end of this year, we are supposed to report to the government whether senior students go to colleges or get jobs. Only the employment rate is supposed to be counted for school evaluation. To move hand in hand with the government policy, we cannot help but to emphasize employment and internship.”

It is also a controversy that the ‘plan to normalize internship for vocational schools’ was abruptly abolished within just two years of inception at the turn of Lee Myung-bak’s government.

In last Apr. 2008, MoEST announced the ‘School Liberalization Plan’ even without asking opinions of students, parents, and teachers sufficiently. Back then, in the course of pushing forward the liberalization of schools, MoEST abolished 27 directives President Roh Mu-hyun’s government had instructed in a response to a specific incident and one of them was the ‘plan to normalize internship for vocational schools’.

 Abolition of Roh Mu-hyun’s policy’ at the inception of Lee Myung-bak’s government … labor rights improvement was put on hold

As criticisms like “a system to mass produce irregular jobs”, “a site to mass produce human rights violations such as sexual harrasments” against internship of vocational high schools were piling up, President Roh Mu-hyun’s government announced a plan to normalize the internship of vocational high schools in May 2006. The key element of that announcement was ‘to allow internship only when 2/3 of senior year 2nd semester was completed and the recruitment at working company was guaranteed after the graduation’. The purpose of that plan was to prevent the misuse of internship not as a part of education but as an expedience to use students as ‘low-wage simple substitutes’ in the industry and the precarious management of school classes during the internship.

But, just after the innauguration, Lee Myung-bak’s government abolished the plan abruptly in the midst of objections from education circles. With the abolition, schools started to send students from the end of Aug., the start of senior year 2nd semester as before. Many intern students simply returned to school, failing to adjust to labor places where welfare or human rights of workers were not improved much.

The school where student Kim who collapsed from a brain hemorrhage while working in Kia Motors attends also had sent out students for internship starting from last Aug.; in Dec., all 99 seniors were in the internship roster. A school official said “In President Roh Mu-hyn’s government, we sent out students from as late as Dec. for internship but, as the directive is changed in Lee Myung-bak’s government, we send out students from Aug. Only some students found jobs at contract companies of conglomerates; last year, only about 30% of intern students were employed by the sponsoring companies. All the rest returned to school for college, military, or for failing to adjust to working environment.”

However, MoEST could not exactly diagnose the reality like this. Although students under 17 years of age (minors in LSA) suffered from illegal labor in Kia Motors Gwangju factory, MoEST or regional education office did not do anything for them. After Kim’s collapse, Kia Motors sent its 28 minor interns back to school belatedly.

MoEST performing emergency reality investigation … will it work? 

MoEST, after student Kim’s collapse from a brain hemorrhage, belatedly went out to investigate the reality of internship for vocational high schools. Minister Lee, with officials of Ministry of Employment and Labor (MoEL), is known to visit manufacturing companies in Seoul Guro, Gyeonggi Gwangmyung areas and to examine the internship management. Also, it is known that MoEST, jointly with MoEL, will setup an examination team for regular monitoring of internship management.

However, if MoEST does not admit policy missteps such as the abolition of the ‘plan to normalize internship for vocational schools’ or if it does not reassess its policy that emphasizes the employment rate for vocational high schools, people worry that ‘internship tragedy’ can be repeated. In particular, they point out the fact that MoEST did not do anything even though the industry was predicted to force intern students to overwork against the law.

To this, the Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union (KTU) pointed out “former participatory government abolished the early internship for the problem of labor exploitation, human rights violation, and the infringement of study rights. But Lee Myung-bak’s government unilaterally revived it under the reason of industrial necessity without any organized discussions or preparations, which resulted in today’s tragedy.”

KTU then continued “recnetly, they threat that vocational high schools that cannot reach the targeted employment rate will be merged with other schools or be changed to general schools as a means of merit system for youth employment, which pushes vocational schools to cling to internship and employment rate more. To stop future tragedies, MoEST should investigate the labor reality of internship or employed students and should devise an improvement plan.”

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