Tens of thousands of South Korean union workers united in a general strike on October 20, 2021, demanding job security and improved workers’ rights. The strike, organized by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KTCU), seized an opportunity provided by the international popularity of Netflix’s Squid Game to emphasize its message just months before South Korea’s 2022 presidential election in March.
Squid Game catapulted to the top of Netflix’s most-watched lists around the world. It features a cast of impoverished characters, overwhelmed with debt, fighting to the death through children’s games in order to win ₩45.0 billion KRW (about $38.2 million USD).
Seong Gi Hun (Lee Jung Jae), the main character of the show, was an automaker fired from his job who then rallied with his colleagues to protest the layoffs. The workers were violently dispersed by riot police, resulting in the traumatic death of one of his coworkers right in front of him.
The show’s focus on the extremes that citizens can be pushed to in capitalist systems resonates with thousands of South Koreans as the demand for improved job security and workers’ rights increases. For many, especially those who experienced the months-long 2009 SsangYong Motors strike, the series’ content was hard to watch.
In Squid Game, you see characters scrambling to survive after being laid off at work, struggling to operate fried chicken diners or working as daeri drivers [who get paid for driving drunk people home in their own cars.] That reminded me of my co-workers who died.
– Lee (ABC News)
Lim Yun Suk, Korea Bureau Chief for Channel News Asia, posted a video from the strike on Twitter showing dozens of union workers dressed in Squid Game costumes. Instead of dressing as the contestants of the game, however, they are dressed as the guards who were also mistreated and victims of an unforgiving system. The masks also aid in providing anonymity to those who attended the strike.
Several union workers dressed in #SquidGames outfit take part in a rally in #Seoul, saying just like in the movie they too are struggling to make a living. They called on the government to improve workers’ rights. Some reports say about 30,000 took part in the rally. pic.twitter.com/tus8vj9KeG
— LIM Yun Suk (@yunsukCNA) October 20, 2021
The strike’s demands concern the rights of “irregular workers” (part-time or contract workers) who do not receive the same labor protections as other workers, giving workers power in deciding “economic restructuring” during times of crisis, as well as the nationalizing of key industries and socializing of basic services like education.
The KTCU organized the general strike despite warnings from government officials for violating the nation’s social distancing policies. Currently, rallies are banned in Seoul and the greater Seoul area. President Moon Jae In urged union workers not to attend the rally in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Reports estimate 80,000-500,000 union members went on strike on Wednesday. In Seoul alone, around 30,000 people gathered to protest and were met with thousands of police officers.