SEOUL — The prolonged novel coronavirus outbreak has dealt a body blow to the labor market in South Korea, causing the number of people in paid employment to plunge by nearly 1 million in January alone.
The current unemployment crisis is the worst since South Korea’s financial crunch of 1997, President Moon Jae-in said Monday, pledging that his administration would take all possible measures to cope with it. But government-led efforts to create jobs have their limits.
Koo Seo Jin, 25, who studied aviation at university, is on the verge of abandoning her dream of becoming a flight attendant. COVID-19 exploded after she graduated last spring, short circuiting her plans to take the necessary examinations and rendering her career preparations useless.
She continues to hope that exams will resume. But the virus has run riot, further darkening airlines’ business prospects. Koo landed a part-time job as a receptionist at a financial institution early this year, but she is not ready to give up her dream completely. “I will start trying again when the coronavirus problem subsides,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also derailed the plans of Kim Seung A, 23, who majored in dance at university and hoped to become a dance and Pilates instructor. But as classes shut down amid the health crisis, she failed to find a job in her chosen field. Now she works part time at a restaurant, trying to save money so she can get a license as a Pilates instructor.
Disappointed as they are, Koo and Kim may be among the lucky ones: at least they have jobs. In South Korea, the job crunch started even before the coronavirus outbreak due to a steep rise in the minimum wage and tougher regulations on overtime. That prompted both companies and sole proprietorships to cut back on hiring.
The pandemic has fueled the trend. Many restaurants, along with leisure and sports facilities, have been forced out of business by coronavirus restrictions. As demand for part-time workers has shriveled, many people are struggling to find any kind of work.
A report on employment trends in January released by the National Statistics Office on Feb. 10 reflects the severe state of the labor market. In January the number of employed people plunged by 980,000 to 25.82 million, the 11th consecutive year-on-year decline. The drop was the largest since a 1.28 million decline in December 1998, following the 1997 crisis. South Korea’s 420,000 jobless pushed the unemployment rate to 5.7%, a year-on-year increase of 1.6 percentage points.
The labor market’s woes are hitting young people hardest. In January, workers in the 15 to 29 age bracket saw 310,000 jobs vanish due to worsening conditions in industries that hire more young workers, such as restaurants and hospitality. The youth unemployment rate…
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