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Precarity, by comparison: the uncertain transnationalization of labor politics between Korea and the Philippines


Shipbuilding is a remarkably mobile industry. After the center of gravity moved from Northern Europe to South Korea and Japan, of late, low–labor cost countries like China and the Philippines are increasingly cutting into the market share of more established players. Before delving into a discussion of how workers in places such as Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines have tried to make sense of recent large-scale shifts, at times pitting their narratives of insecurity and loss against imagined lower-quality workforces elsewhere, I investigate what an anthropological understanding of precarity as an umbrella term within such a heated terrain may be able to achieve. Finally, I propose an ethnographically informed reading of David Harvey’s and Beverly Silver’s works on spatio-temporal fixes, and argue that their combined approaches can bring about new openings when brought into conversation with anthropological theorizing that is alert to local historical nuances and encounters.

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  1. Sections of the introduction are a recount of events that took place before my own research into the labor struggle surrounding Hanjin’s two shipyards took place (for a summary, see As part of the ERC Adv.Gr.-funded project “Overheating,” I have encountered all the actors mentioned—Kim Jin-sook, Chong Hye-won, and Kim Kyun-choon—during a 2012 speaking tour of Kim Jin-sook in Berlin, and a research trip to Seoul and Pusan in the fall of 2013. Additionally, I have undertaken seven months of ethnographic fieldwork amongst activists in the Philippines.

  2. Although the death toll is disputed, 38 workers are known to have died between 2006 and 2014 in work-related accidents. Between 2006 and 10 alone, more than 5000 accidents occurred, according to union sources.

  3. In particular, the issue of insufficient safety equipment and the practice of double shifts have been named here, which workers have attributed as a primary cause for accidents. Hanjin’s Korean foremen at the shipyard were for a while also infamous for the verbal and physical abuse they doled out to their workers.

  4. I use the McCune-Reischauer Romanization for Korean terms and phrases, but have chosen to keep personally preferred or most common romanizations when it comes to the names of individuals (e.g., “Park Chung-hee” rather than “Pak Chŏnghŭi”).

  5. During the struggle, the term “hŭimangtwaechik” (the Korean word for “voluntary redundancy”) had some of its hidden meanings re-appropriated: The first section of the word (i.e., “hŭimang”), when read on its own, can also mean “hope,” an aspect of the term that was now teased out in order to coin a positive phrase to rally around.

  6. See: For further Al Jazeera reporting on the topic, see also:

  7. To be sure, scholarly debates around the rise of precarity already began in the late 1990s, in the wake of the so-called IMF crisis (i.e., the Asian Financial crisis). See, for instance, Cho Soon-Kyung ‘s work (e.g., 1997). For newer work ethnographically engaging with the plight of precarious workers in South Korea, see for instance Chun (2009).

  8. As Filipino activists have repeatedly alleged to me, Hanjin’s subcons were in their view frequently violating the rather minimal requirements of what legally constitutes a subcontractor in the country. Such a subcontracting unit, for instance, needs to be in possession of enough capital and equipment to legitimately show that they are an independent actor vis-à-vis the company that hires their services. Yet in this case, “all the machines, all the stuff, it’s all Hanjin,” as one local activist explained to me (see Kim 2017, for a recent Korean news report on such allegations).

  9. For instance, in October 2017, union leaders claimed that Hanjin management had physically barred workers from casting their votes during “certification elections” (i.e., the official election that certifies a union to become bargaining representative on behalf of workers) by preventing them from leaving the shipyard in time. (Roxas 2017)

  10. The informal no-union policy at work at the shipyard is not unique—instead, it seems to be a promise that has been given to many foreign direct investors coming to Subic Bay, as Chan and Kelly (n.d.) point out: “Many investors and early tenants cited the unofficial banning of unions (…) as one of the main incentives for locating here” (p. 150).


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I would like to thank Sian Lazar, Andrew Sanchez, Keir Martin, and the anonymous peer reviewers for their extremely useful comments on an earlier draft of this article, and I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to the labor activists who have given me their time in South Korea and the Philippines.

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Correspondence to Elisabeth Schober.

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Schober, E. Precarity, by comparison: the uncertain transnationalization of labor politics between Korea and the Philippines. Dialect Anthropol 43, 45–60 (2019).

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  • Shipbuilding
  • Precarity
  • South Korea
  • Philippines
  • Spatio-temporal fix