It is very common to see youngsters rushing to the subway station at dusk to catch the first train, when it is still dark and chilly, with a cup of coffee and toast in hand. They are eager to be the first ones in office, and for a reason.
It used to be no different for young intern Jeon -- she wished to be identified only by her family name -- until all her hard work came to naught.
She used to begin her day at the office by making coffee for her seniors, and couldn't imagine dozing off or slacking, for everyone in her team was watching her -- job performance and attitude would be evaluated when hiring full-time workers after the internship.
Jeon endured everything -- from tedious chores to fawning over her weird boss who would frequently leer at her. Despite all these efforts and perseverance, all she was left with after her internship was a text message which read, "We're sorry but we have decided not to move your application forward."
"I was devastated," said Jeon, who is back on the sluggish local job market, saying she feels like she has wasted her precious time on a wild goose chase.
This is not an isolated case. According to government statistics, one out of five young job seekers begin their career paths as nonregular workers, such as interns or trainees.
Many businesses hire new workers through internships through which the companies offer full-time positions to a certain portion -- ranging from 50 to 90 per cent -- of high-performers. In this way, companies can identify potential employees who are also trained and experienced through the probation period.
Every year, tens of thousands of young Koreans enter into exploitive work arrangements, working overtime and mostly doing menial works for little or no pay, because they consider it as a rite of passage to be admitted into the white-collar world. These desperate jobseekers can barely complain or speak up against their poor working conditions, for disobedience could jeopardize possible job opportunities.
"Nobody complains about working overtime," said Choi, who gained a permanent position at a public firm last year through a 6-month internship at the company.
"There was also fierce competition among interns. They were willing to work overtime and nobody asked for the rightful reward as long as they could become regular workers."
Heavy strain and worries are what torment these young people most, since they have to cast their dice on the internship -- they might be wasting their precious time for nothing. Also, they might have to make excuses in their next interviews, while their certificates and English test scores -- which often cost them significant amount of effort and money -- expire in two years. Some even suffer from the fear of being around people, as families and relatives meddle and put heavy strain on them.
For female interns, the reality is even harsher. A 22-year-old college student Jang, who recently did an internship at an architectural firm, had to put up with her boss who would pass offensive sexual comments on her body. A few years earlier, a congressman was under fire for sexually harassing his intern. Likewise, female interns are often targeted for sexual harassment.
Internships are supposed to provide on-site experience for the fresh graduates, while it can work as a system to find potential future hires for employers. Companies, however, often take advantage of the system and view it as an opportunity to exploit the plight of cheap and passionate workers.
Earlier this year, a local social commerce firm, Wemakeprice.com, drew flak for firing all of its 11 interns after hiring them for two weeks. But such tyranny never seems to stop. Recently, a local financial firm reportedly laid off more than half of their interns due to financial problems.
In April 2013, a 20-something Korean man hanged himself in his apartment. The young man had begun his sales internship at an insurance firm few months earlier, but had been reportedly suffering from work pressure, due to bad sales performance. Who are pushing the young job seekers to death? The need seems to be growing for more decent jobs for fresh graduates and strict legal guidelines that protects the young, desperate job seekers.