The South Korean shipbuilding industry, the largest shipbuilder in the global supply chain, is the deadliest sector with the highest rate of subcontracted workers in the country. A 19-year-old subcontracted worker walked alone into the green subway line, the busiest and oldest line in Seoul, to fix the newly installed screen door. His body was crushed by a passing train, despite countless security cameras and safety protocols. Kim Yong-gyun, a 24-year-old contingent worker, died alone at midnight on the floor of the Korea Western Power Company Plant, one of the four major power plants brightening the metropolitan region. Kim relied on his cell phone light to check the coal-carrying conveyor belt alone. Each of these instances represents the ‘outsourcing of risk,’ which characterizes Korean labor today.

The neoliberal state has legalized the contingent workforce since the 1997-8 Asian Financial Crisis. At its peak, the rate of female contingent workers reached 69.5% (male contingent workers: 45.4%) in 2001. Female contingent workers make 53% (male contingent workers earn 70%) of the regular male workers’ wages today. In my recent article in Capital & Class, I argue that legalizing contingent labor has been the major strategy of the neoliberal state to socially reproduce “feminized labor on an expanded scale” in South Korea. What is the relationship between premature deaths and feminized contingent labor?

I extend Marxist feminist critiques of social reproduction to explain the ways global financialization processes affect social reproduction patterns in the era of neoliberalization (1997-present) in South Korea. I focus on the question of how financialization affects contingent workers’ livability. I use two distinct sets of data for the inquiry. First, I look at the role of the state and Chaebols (large conglomerates) in promoting the financialization of industrial capital and household assets/debts. Second, I examine workers’ premature deaths in the shipbuilding industry, public sectors (energy), and migrant labor sectors (agriculture and recycling). I show that financialization materializes in both the first (state policy and capital production) and the second processes (social reproduction of labor).

Social Reproduction in Flux

The notion of social reproduction is very much in flux. Feminist debates on social reproduction diverge between a descriptive approach (that denotes all sorts of reproductive or caring activities) and a dialectic approach (that emphasizes that it is the condition of possibility for capitalist production). The dialectic approach led by Marxist feminist scholars focuses on societal processes of reproducing labor power and capitalist social relations at large. Marxist feminists criticize the descriptive approach for its failure to explain the contradictory relationship between social reproduction and capitalist production. For instance, we can’t explain the relationship between rising housing prices and stagnant wages of working people through the descriptive notion of social reproduction.

The major contribution of Marxist feminist social reproduction theory (SRT) is redirecting the focus of analysis to societal-level processes of reproduction. Instead of individualizing caring labor, SRT examines how reproductive labor is organized in a historically specific time and location. Nancy Fraser’s exemplary essay “Contradiction of Capital and Care” reveals the Western welfare state model’s social reproduction crisis tendency.

Given the reality that caring labor relations and practices are not entirely controlled by the state and the market, Bakker and Gill’s study highlights ‘a variegated, differentiated, and constitutively uneven terrain of social reproduction in the global political economy’ as a primary site of investigation for historical materialist study. More recently, critical feminist scholars influenced by Black feminist thought are paying attention to intersectional dynamics focusing on the ways class articulates with gender, race, sexuality, and ability in social reproduction processes.

How can we radicalize the praxis of social reproduction? To find potential answers, I turn to the sites of contingent workers’ struggles in South Korea.

Financialized Chaebol Capital-led Social Reproduction

While the wage of the feminized workforce was systematically lowered, the neoliberal state promoted privatizing public sectors like energy and transportation. As the state abandoned contingent workers by curtailing welfare benefits and fundamental labor rights, even criminalizing their protests and struggles, Chaebol capital accumulation in social reproduction sectors gradually expanded in the period. Chaebol capital has been concentrated on the top five big conglomerates, and their investment patterns shifted from traditional manufacturing and heavy industries to the energy, logistics, media, and IT sectors.

Chaebol capital, through its double dominance in the industrial and financial sectors (thanks to the Capital Market Integration Law passed in 2009), became the dominant force of the social reproduction of labor and life. The transnational success of the film and K-pop industry cannot be explained without conglomerates like CJ, the funder of the award-winning Parasite (Directed by Bong Jun-ho, 2019). CJ Group, a holding company, controls 13 affiliate companies in the food and food service, biopharma, home shopping, logistics, and entertainment and media sectors. Chaebols today produce not only essential goods but also popular ethos.

Progress by Death

The workplace fatality rate in South Korea continues to be among the top three of OECD counties. The country is also notorious for long working hours. Existing studies examine the issues mainly through industrial policies and labor relations. In fact, the data reveals the changing social reproduction relations between state, market, and labor. The Korean economy continues to grow by sacrificing contingent workers’ lifetimes – the socially necessary time for a decent life. I call this violent relation ‘progress by death’ which is ‘a regional mode of growth that constitutes and operationalizes financialized global capitalism near and far’ and ‘the way of life promoted by the South Korean state and by the fully transnationalized Chaebol capital’. What is stolen in this regional strategy for continued growth are the social reproduction times and life potentials of contingent workers.


Jiwoon Yulee is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Syracuse University

To read more, see Jiwoon Yulee. “Progress by death: Labor precaritization and the financialization of social reproduction in South Korea” in Capital & Class 2022.

Image: Humanity (Kim Yong-Kyun) vis Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)