All people need help in life. No one can survive without the help of others. People who help us are called Helpers. They guide and comfort us and even push us towards solutions. They are always your absolute supporters. Then, who can be a good helper? To find the answer, The Sookmyung Times met Kwon Pyongtai, aide to National Assembly member Cho Junghun.
Before we begin the interview, would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I entered university in 1987, but by June 1987, I had become active in the Democratic Movement. I represented all first year students at Seoul National University at the time, and ever since, I have continued to be involved with student and social movements. My life has taken various turns over the years. I once worked as a day laborer at different construction sites. Actually, that job lasted for about 10 years until my early 40s. Now I am working as Cho Junghun's personal aide. Cho is a member of Transition Korea working at the National Assembly.
In addition to your current position as aide, you have worked alongside three other members of the National Assembly as aides before. What is the most important consideration when working as an aide?
The most important thing that I must do as an aide is to match my ideas to that of the senator's. In an internal decision, I object and discuss the matter, but I try to match my ideas to my teams' thoughts when having an discussion with other teams. Also, the greatest ability of an aide is the ability to work fast. That is, I need to be able to carry out tasks quickly.
For 10 years you worked in a completely different field. What is your biggest change between the past and present as an aide?
As I mentioned before, for 10 years I worked as a day laborer in the construction industry. The biggest change for me was my idea of "liberalism" that I had at the time. At the time, the main force of existing liberal was vested interest in society. After experiencing hard labor, I believe I understand the need to consider both office workers as well as contracted day laborers. In other words, my personal experience as a day laborer gave me insight and vision for a future world in which workers, fulltime staff and day contractors, live harmoniously.
You would like your vision, "A world where staff work harmoniously, regardless of hiring status type" to come true. What are you presently doing to make this vision a reality?
As a parliamentary aide, I'm helping the senator create policies that match the vision. Because the senator I am working for shares my vision and puts settlement of polarization first. One of his Seoul mayor campaign pledges is to realize this vision. The vision would require changes to the employment system. Regular fulltime staff would gain more stability and contract workers would gain high incomes. The initiative attempts to solve the problem of contract employment and eliminate discrimination between the various types of employed staff. That is, it would make the two jobs equal. Since I cannot work at the Assembly forever, I'm doing my best to make my vision a reality before I leave by taking on various tasks and gaining experience at the Assembly.
It is clear that your work as a day contractor has had a huge influence on your vision. Do you have any experience of setting up your vision when you worked as a day contractor?
Before starting my work as a day laborer at construction sites, I thought foreign workers were the most ignored people in Korean society and should be protected. However, I found there were large numbers of foreign workers employed at construction sites compared to offices. I realized there are few jobs for day laborers and how difficult it is for them to sustain a standard livelihood solely working day-to-day. After working as a day laborer, I saw the harsh reality of the workers' lives, and I became even more determined to address the issue of contract employment.
What has been the most memorable experience working at all your different jobs?
Let me first tell you that I've worked as a lecturer at university, a columnist, a day laborer, and currently a National Assembly advisor. What comes to mind are my days as a day laborer. Before actually working as a day laborer, I had only superficially been in contact with the issues of contract employment from a social science perspective. At that time, it was a simple question of "How can we solve this problem?" However, since being a day laborer, I have begun to ask more in depth questions like 'What is living?' which had brought change inside me. In particular, I have had to deal with rough people at construction workplaces, much more aggressive people than those who would be working at office jobs. I learned how to deal with conflicts and how to show an inner softness.
What difficulties have you encountered as an aide? How did you overcome them?
For me, the hardest part of my work life is not the actual work or the difficulty of a task, but human relationships. Friction will enviably exist between the boss and staff. This is also true for people working as aides, contract public servants. So, there is fear that we could be fired without prior notice. I also was once fired due to friction and had to challenge difficulties. However, after construction worksite experience, I use my inner softness to resolve conflicts peacefully. I used to battle head-on, but now I strive to overcome problems by managing relationships.
Please tell us your happiest or most rewarding experience working as an aide.
My boss, the senator I work for, ranked first among the standing committee members in last year's parliamentary inspection. What I was most proud of, though, was the collaborative effort by the entire team and the senator. Moreover, during an interpellation session with Prime Minister Chung Syekyun on July 23, 2020, Cho Junghun announced a public holiday designated on August 17, 2020. The online video showing the announcement has drawn a lot of attention. I was responsible for composing part of the speech spoken by the senator, and I also composed a comment on behalf of day laborers that the Prime Minister read. The Prime Minister and the senator then discussed the issue. I was able to convey the voice of the people. I am doing my best to work as an aide, especially when the ideas the senator utters are for policy-making or publicized. In other words, helping him to do his job well is the most worthwhile part of being an aide.
I know that you are a big Facebook user. Why do you feel it important to communicate frequently with people?
Rather than flowering up a speech, I write honestly about my past pain and thoughts. Sometimes, people who follow me on Facebook actually contact me. I have made a lot of good new associations through SNS. Facebook also helped me find my current job to some extent, and it has allowed me to get an "important relationship."
You wrote a work diary while working as a researcher at the Institute of Social Design. Would you please tell us a bit about it and why you wrote it?
In the spring of 2011, the issue of contract workers had really started to come to light in our society. A reporter from a daily newspaper published a book detailing his 10-month contract job experiences. The research institute's finances were tight at the time, so my salary was cut significantly. Throughout university, I never had the chance to do physical labor, so I decided to give it a try as a construction day laborer. Then, I started to get more concerned about the problem of contract employment. And I recorded my days as a day laborer in a work diary.
You have also been active for platform workers. What are you doing or have done for the workers on the platform?
Staff such as delivery persons keep track of their work on an app. If they mistakenly delete the app, their work record is deleted and there is no way to prove deliveries. Therefore, I helped the senator compose and introduce a work career certificate law. Currently I am working on making delivery ride insurance mandatory, considering that they are not properly insured.
Because of the current unemployment situation, in the year of 2030, more people will face with contract worker problems. What do you think needs to be done before 2030 to prevent these problems?
The world is changing much faster than when I was in my twenties. Many jobs will disappear due to the 4th Industrial Revolution, but new ones will also be created. In all likelihood, workers will not stay forever at one single workplace. Like this, it seems that the challenge today is to live a life that always adapts to change. Nonetheless, I do feel it is the responsibility of the older generation to solve the unemployment situation. I think we need to solve the problem for the younger generation by changing the current employment system so that jobs can be increased or eliminated as needed.
Could you tell us more about your plan for creating an ideal employment system?
It is my hope that all workers are given the equal chance to succeed in life. And opportunity to work is not based on their social status. Fulltime staff should be guaranteed stability, and contract workers should be given higher wages because they forgo stability. Some countries already carry out this type of arrangement at workplaces. Not everyone wants fulltime work, and not everyone wants to be a contract worker, so I think we can compromise to create a world that satisfies all types of workers.
Would you like to leave a final few words for Sookmyungians?
I'm sure you are struggling, but later when you look back on this time, you will know that it was the best time of your life, being an undergraduate student. Study hard, enjoy a variety of experiences, and socialize with as many people as possible so that your youth can be full of diverse memories.
-Ph.D. candidate (Political Science Management) Seoul National University
-Columnist for magazines and newspapers
-Day laborer at construction sites for 10 years
-Aide to National Assembly member Cho Junghun