All they taught you at school was how to be a good worker

After being turned down on my 50th job application since I came to Korea, I’m starting to get a little disheartened. I’ve held off writing more about looking for work, because it feels like there’s so much to say, and yet it’s redundant: anyone who’s been unemployed knows what it feels like. As a good Marxist I’d like to provide some insight, some social analysis that’s lacking from mainstream accounts. But I can’t improve on the raw emotion that being on the scrapheap provokes:

I long, desperately, to fall asleep with the contentment and exhaustion of a full and productive day.

My time is spent writing application after application, repeating the same information in different words. A wearisome and unproductive task: it is rare to receive an acknowledgment, let alone an invite to interview.

I lead a life without achievement. In fact my life is quite the opposite: a life waiting to begin again – a waste.

Watching tv (Royle Family)

Like the author says, I was grateful to be turned down for that 50th application, because the employer actually took the time to write me. He said I wasn’t the candidate they were looking for, which I think was code for “we don’t want any radicals sullying our spotless department” but the personal touch showed he was a decent individual.

There are so many ways to talk about unemployment: statistics, loss of self-worth, or the paradox that The Smiths neatly encapsulated: knowing in advance that the solution to your problems is a job that will leave you bored, irritated and exhausted. Unemployment is a rich vein of inquiry, all the more so because capitalist economics can’t admit it exists. According to the economists, unemployment is just a temporary aberration until supply and demand corrects itself. I’d like to study this further, but I need to work on job applications, so I’ll limit myself to two observations, specific and general.

A criminal mind

To work in South Korea, you need to prove that you’re not a criminal. This has provoked an unreasoned amount of anger in me, and today I figured out why. It’s not just the paperwork, although that in itself is formidable: a fingerprint check against national police records of your home country, every six months. The check itself takes 5 months when you live overseas, which means I couldn’t take a job even if one was offered. I face returning home, where a check takes 3 days, because the police have a digital fingerprint machine you can use. But for some reason, these machines aren’t in embassies abroad.

Things will get difficult (Kurde)

No, what really bothers me is the jurisprudence. In Korea, you’re guilty until proven innocent. Here are the application requirements from a random ESL teaching job:

– Copies of diploma(s)
– Copies of certificate(s)
– Copies of transcripts
– Copy of the front page of your passport
– Copy of the alien registration card (if currently employed in Korea)
– Scanned photo
– Apostilled criminal background check and Apostilled copy of diploma will be needed after acceptance later.

They don’t want this information so you can brag about your credentials; they want you to show that you’re not a criminal. “Apostilled” means that a letter from the police isn’t enough: that letter has to be stamped by the embassy. An apostilled degree means it must be notarized by a lawyer before being stamped by the embassy.

Civil servant madness (Dream City)

Now, you might ask, what’s wrong with asking employees to prove they’re above-board? Don’t employers have the right not to hire criminals? Leaving aside the individualist bias of this question – the criminals who run businesses face no such sanction – let’s assume that yes, we all have to cope with unemployment and poverty on our own, without violating the property rights of the rich. In which case, why not just do this?


These are screenshots from two British universities; if you aren’t a criminal, you click ‘no’ and move on. If later on they find that you lied, they get to fire you. Simple. Work is bad enough: to spend quite a lot of cash to prove you’re a good worker is rubbing salt in the wounds.

Be flexible

In academia, your studies are only valuable to the extent they’re marketable. If no one wants English literature or sociology, don’t waste your time studying it, the logic goes. But take heart: if your thesis work on cheeses of the French Renaissance can’t get you a job, you can change.

working for the exploiters

In the fantasy-world of my 50+ applications, I’ve pretended to be a geographer, historian, English teacher, NGO worker, publisher, editor, etc., even though I went to school for none of those things. So I found this discussion refreshing, and in particular this contribution:

Academic work is one of the most specialised forms of labour that exist. You train for upwards of ten years to develop a very specific form of expertise in a particular part of an academic discipline. Now you are expected to do that, but be entirely flexible as to what research you do, what you teach, where you work..?

That’s it exactly. We’re told from the moment we enter school that we need to specialize, and from the moment we leave school, to generalize. The contradiction results from research contracts being available for whatever a professor has got funding for – a range of diverse, specific topics. And although society might desperately need to know about Trapped Ion Frequency Metrology, if you’ve studied the ions that were set free then you’re out of luck.

The implication is that the only purpose of education is to service capital (‘something people actually need’ is how it’s usually phrased.) The needs of the people actually doing the work don’t matter. The kicker is that I accept this logic: I am prepared to work at something tangentially related to my field, if I can just get my foot in the door. But being flexible doesn’t help: employers want to see that your life has been leading up to the point where you come to meet their needs.

We are products (Big Man Japan)

I’m prepared to hear that this is the way the world works, but my point is that it doesn’t have to be. A common response to abuse is to identify with the oppressor, and that’s what the experts of Human Resources encourage: if you don’t like being exploited, you just haven’t been exploited enough yet.

As to what we might do about this, I’m positive there are some good suggestions floating in the ether. Most involve a lot of swearing.
Sod off (Fry & Laurie)


3 thoughts on “All they taught you at school was how to be a good worker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s