Earlier in the week, news broke about stronger regulations stipulating that workers who are younger than 15 years of age are restricted from working over 35 hours a week. This news comes ahead of reports about Samsung allegedly ’employing’ children under the age of 15 to work long hours at a Chinese factory in Dongguan, China.
While major technology companies often feign obliviousness when confronted with these child labor issues (see: Apple), child labor laws remain having varying degrees of regulation in different parts of the world. In regards to this particular Korean law, it seems to be pinpointed at celebrity minors who may often run the risk of devoting a majority of their time to their work instead of their studies.
This new law serves as a revision to the longstanding Labor Standards Act which previously stipulated those under 15 could work provisionally with a permit, granted their work would not impede their compulsory education. The new regulation also prohibits these minors from working between the hours of 10pm to 6am in addition to the designation of the stricter hourly cap. For those aged 15-18, the hourly cap is reduced to forty hours a week from the previous forty-two. This time can be extended by an extra hour a day with permissions from the parent. To me, that still seems like a lot of work time for someone under the age of 15 to work, and how they are expected to work those hours and receive a proper education is beyond me.
However, this new law has drawn ire from entertainment agencies and has seen a polarized set of opinions from netizens due to its complications against the demands of the industry. A representative from JYP made the following statement:
“We have to follow the law but applying it to reality is difficult.”
The reason why agencies are fretting is because of the time-consuming nature of the K-pop entertainment industry. Music and entertainment broadcasts often require early morning rehearsals and at least ten hours devoted to the broadcast recording. Multiply the amount of time it takes to record a show by the three to four shows per week, and the weekly working limit is pretty much already met or exceeded. Agencies have complained that this does not even take into account the other activities that idols partake in, which include commercials, interviews, variety show appearances, etc. The outright demands of the industry in its status quo conflict with the constraints of this new regulation.
Amongst some discontent from agencies and companies over the scope and limits of this law, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has proclaimed that travel, rest, and standby time is not to be included in the hourly restriction. The Ministry has also stated that they will revise the measures if needed.
These issues brought up by the entertainment agencies highlight the pitfalls and loopholes in this law. Will it actually do what it sets out to do?
In the past, the Korean government intervention into the appropriate treatment and display of youth in the celebrity field has been uneven at times. There was that modification by the Korean Communications Standards Commission a while back which made regulations on sexually suggestive performances and overly revealing outfits stricter. Even back then, there were doubts as to the implementation and ultimate long term effects of making these rules stricter — did it actually address anything it set out to do? There were also some protective measures (in light of the Open World Entertainment scandal) employed to help young trainees from being taken advantage of. Though once again, did the rules set in place really address the problematic nature of young idols being subjected to the whim and mercy of their agencies?
I am also not entirely convinced that this mandate will rightfully limit the amount of hours that minors will eventually end up working. The Ministry has already stated that certain downtime will not count towards their actual ‘work’ time, but this downtime will still eat up their otherwise free time. Doesn’t this end up working against the purpose of allowing these minors an ample amount of time and energy to devote towards studying/education?
In addition, the idea of regulating the amount of reported hours a celebrity minor will work in a day or week seems nearly impossible. Their schedules will take them to variety of locations, and their training and rehearsal hours will be something the agency may keep under wraps. In the end, the agency is still the acting ‘parent’ to their set of trainees, and while they possess a majority of the power in this relationship, they will continue to oppress their artists under their guise of family. As long as agencies hold most of the cards which will determine the success or failure of their trainees, they are likely to abuse the system — notwithstanding harsher penalties or a reformation of the system.
Another prior Seoulbeats article had addressed the question of whether there was a way to determine when an idol would be too young to function in the K-pop industry. That article pointed out how age does not necessitate the emotional or physical strengths that are needed to survive in the industry. Sometimes, someone younger may display a maturity compared to their peers of the same year. However, at the same time the author singled out Janey from GP Basic, who debuted at 13 and a half, as being considered too young by entertainment programs. She was subsequently banned from performing on music shows despite showing a sense of maturity in her performance with the group.
But herein lies another paradox. The psyche of minors and whether they can or cannot handle the rigors of the industry varies from person to person. Where can the boundary lines of too young be drawn, and how can that age be accurate across the board – especially when an idol’s experience is sure to differ based on their company, popularity, etc.
With this move to curb the work hours of the youth drawing media attention, some netizens are calling for more scrutiny on other areas of intense emotional and physical pressure effecting minors. Most notably, the educational rigors were mentioned — where some students will often study from 8am to (as late if not later than) 11pm. The focus on regulating celebrity minors seems perplexing considering that the educational realities affect a larger subset of the Korean youth population. It just seems that the education realities and expectations facing so many youth seems to be a left idle for another day.
How these laws will end up being achieved, and whether the goals of these requirements will be met continues to be an issue. At times, it feels as if society’s reaction to these working conditions of minors elicits a kneejerk regulation from the Ministry. In the end, the regulations are band aids over a few visible bruises set on by the problematic confines of the idol system.
As some netizens have also pointed to other troubling conditions facing the youth of Korea, it is apparent that minors are still being overly burdened in other facets of society. In particular, the pressures of education which seems to be analogous to labor in terms of hours
worked studied. While the 35 hour a week law for minors under 15 seems to have good intentions, the actual change that it will spark seems to be limited at best. At the very least, it will hopefully send a message — to these young workers that they have actual labor rights and to the employers that there is a limit to how much they can or should work these minors.
Do you think this law will change anything? What other solutions do you think need to be put in place to better regulate the industry from taking advantage of these young workers?