Half of South Korean seniors now live in relative poverty - the highest rate, by far, in the industrialized world. (Photo by ADVOCATE NEWS SERVICES)

In Pyeongchang, maintaining Olympic venues relies on a poor, aging workforce

  • Feb. 24, 2018 6:00 a.m.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Hockey players from Finland were circling with the puck, finishing off the final seconds of a win against Germany, and then the clock hit zero. Some arena rock music came on. Players filed into lines for handshakes. A public-address announcer ran through the final statistics, and slowly, the fans filed out, leaving the arena empty, except for all the things left behind.

“OK, everybody in position,” a cleaning manager told about 20 elderly workers, and then it was time for the next act at the Gangneung Hockey Center, just one of the Winter Olympics venues where a South Korean societal crisis hides in plain sight.

Because as the fans neared the exits, a new set of people was entering the arena.

The man who walked toward Section 212, holding a plastic bag, picking up Coke bottles and potato chip packaging, was 67.

The woman who headed toward Section 214, using a hand rag to clean the seats, scrubbing away shoe tracks and smeared chocolate, was 68.

The man who cleaned Section 110, mopping the aisles, was 78.

The man who helped clean the bathrooms, wiping the floors and stocking the toilet paper, was 82.

And they had to move quickly. In 90 minutes, the arena doors would reopen, and another hockey game would start. All fans would notice was a clean arena.

“Knees. Shoulders. It all hurts,” said one worker, Lee Seon-dae, 68. “I’m too tired to do this.”

Every nation depends on its own version of low-wage labor, but in South Korea, there is a twist: Those workers increasingly tend to come from the very generation that spearheaded the country’s 65-year rise to prosperity. As it has aged, that generation has become drastically more vulnerable and impoverished than the rest of the country, sliding backward because of a meagre safety net and diminishing support from their children. Nearly half of South Korean seniors now live in relative poverty – the highest rate, by far, in the industrialized world. As a result, at a time when they should be retired, they have gone looking for minimum-wage work.

“The old generation of this country might see the situation as unfair,” said Lee Jun-young, a professor of social welfare at the University of Seoul. “They worked very hard to build the nation when they were young, but many of them are now a living a very poor life.”

The vulnerability of South Korea’s seniors speaks to a rapid shift in the way this country cares for and thinks about it its elderly. For previous generations, there was little need to think about a pension or retirement savings; children were the pension, all but guaranteed to support and often live with their parents as they aged.

But in modern-day, achievement-obsessed Korea, that social contract has frayed. A minority of children, compared with 90 percent two decades ago, now think they should take care of their parents. Adult children tend to chase jobs and prosperity in large cities, mostly Seoul, and in rural areas such as Gangwon Province, the region hosting the Olympics, those without familial support depend mostly on measly government pensions – as little as $200 per month.

“Because of the weak pension system, retired people have no other way but to look for work,” said Lee Jae-hun, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute for People, in Seoul. “Without additional income, it’s impossible to carry on living for another thirty-some years.”

Those seniors rarely find good-paying jobs. They supervise parking lots, drive taxis, work as security guards or couriers. In Seoul, shelters that offer free lunches have lines composed almost entirely of the elderly. And here in Pyeongchang, those older people have taken on some of the toughest behind-the-scene jobs at the Olympics. At the Gangneung Hockey Center, a younger supervisor told workers not to speak to reporters and said media members needed a permit to do so. But twelve workers employed at four venues who spoke with the Post portrayed a difficult job – eight hour shifts, spent mostly on their feet – that also evoked, for some, a bit of pride.

“It is a national event, but the work is really hard for me,” said Kim Seung-ok, 71, who cleans bathrooms at the short track speed skating venue. “I’m not sure if I can last until the end.”

Many of the arena workers were hired by Seoul-based TNS Property Management, which, in the months before the Games, advertised the temporary jobs by placing help-wanted notices in community newspapers and on the web sites of hiking clubs, which are popular in mountainous Gangwon Province. The company says its Olympic workforce is composed most prominently of people in their 60s; it looked for younger workers, too, but struggled to find and retain them.

“We didn’t look just for old people,” said H.L. Lee, a TNS deputy director. “We tried to choose people living close by, and also looked at whether they can do this cleaning job. After looking at it the first day, we evaluate whether the work is too much for them. If it is, we recommend for them not to do it.”

One of the people who responded to the job notice was Song Jeong-eum, 82, who during these Olympics has cleaned bathrooms at the Gangneung Hockey Center. He lives 15 minutes from the arena, with his wife, in a home tucked in an alleyway just off a main thoroughfare. During his career, he’d driven taxis, helped to manufacture tractors, and worked at a large-scale cabbage farm. He’d last held a job more than 10 years ago, doing manual labor at a construction site.

But then, he decided to go back to work.

He was healthy, he told himself, and for that he was grateful. Plus, the work would give him something to do, other than ride his bike and watch television. His sons lived far away. He’d been married to his wife for 55 years – “too long,” he said. About half of his close friends were no longer alive.

“I’m working because I’m healthy,” he said.

But, he said, there were other reasons too. When he was younger, he’d invested in his children – spending on education – not saving for retirement. “All Koreans do that,” he said. He and his wife now lived on $600 per month – half from a national pension fund, another half sent from his kids. How would he and his wife cope if their medical expenses escalated? What if he couldn’t work then? “The more money the better,” he said one afternoon, speaking in his living room. “Of course I’m worried about the future.

And then, he looked at the clock. It was time to go. He got into his car and headed for the arena, picking up four elderly workers along the way. When they arrived, Song changed into his vest, which said “Cleaning Services,” and grabbed a cleaning cart with detergent, a mop, brushes, spray bottles, and industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper. The first of two hockey games that day had ended an hour ago.

On the ice, a Zamboni was running.

In the stands, workers were out with their mops.

Soon, fans would be back in the arena.

Song took his cart, and headed toward the first restroom.

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