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Ranks of the Working Poor Growing Amid Slowdown

Posted January. 23, 2009 09:40,   


Around 5:30 a.m. at Gwangnaru station, the first train of the day arrived there. The atmosphere was dreary as a couple of passengers rode in each car.

Trains in subway line No. 2 were crowded after 6 a.m., however. Office worker Yang Yeong-woo, 35, said, “Office workers go to work earlier than before. I think they do so to avoid crowds and also to work harder amid the economic downturn.”

When commuters began pouring in and out of trains after 7 a.m., a couple of elderly people gathered newspapers that passengers left. They collected free dailies from overhead racks and put them in carts, backpacks or sacks.

These collectors make a living by selling discarded newspapers to recycling centers, but are also feeling the pinch from the economic downturn. When paper manufacturers that use waste paper cut production due to the slumping economy, the price of a kilogram of waste paper has fallen to 150 to 160 won (11 to 12 cents) from 200 won (14 cents).

Though gathering newspapers the whole morning, they earn only 2,000 to 3,000 won (1.50 to 2.20 U.S. dollars).

Lee Jong-soon, 70, ekes out a meager living by collecting newspapers. “My income has plummeted due to a steep fall in the price of waste paper,” he said. “Worse, we have to compete with unemployed people who are younger and also gather newspapers.”

Around 11 a.m., traffic in subway line No. 1 bound for Incheon grew lighter and elderly newspaper collectors were nowhere in sight.

After lunchtime, however, peddlers who earn a living by selling cheap items on subway cars started emerging.

A seller of dust removers around 2:10 p.m. on the platform of City Hall station said the number of subway peddlers has grown 20 percent. “To avoid other peddlers, I skip several trains,” he said.

The deepening economic slowdown is forcing more people to start selling stuff on the subway, he said.

Though merchants are selling items at around 1,000 won (70 cents) such as compact discs, lamps, gloves and stockings, their sales are hardly improving given the growing frugality among passengers.

Newsstand operator Cho Ok-ran, 66, works inside City Hall station. “People even hesitate to buy a newspaper that costs only several hundred won,” she said.

At 10 p.m., Jonggak subway station turned into a shelter for the homeless. Some slept on cardboard boxes and others drank alcohol in one corner.

One homeless person said while drinking the Korean spirit soju, “I want to work but I have no job. I go to the labor market every morning to find menial jobs but with no luck.”

Security guard Lim Myeong-soo, 67, works at the underground shopping center of Jonggak Station. He said, “The growing number of homeless people here shows the economy is in the worst shape. Perfectly normal people in appearance come here to stay the night.”