Seoul, South Korea – On weekday afternoons, the Starbucks in southern Seoul’s Yangjae neighbourhood swells with groups of office workers seeking after-lunch refreshments.
A line forms from the counter to the shop’s swinging glass doors as white-collar workers line up to order hot and cold drinks. Among the seasonal specials are the Lavender Beige Oat Latte topped with cornflower leaves and New Year Citrus Tea garnished with lemongrass and a slice of orange.
“We come here with colleagues after lunch because we know that everyone will be able to find something they like,” Yoon Min-ju, who works at a nearby interior design firm, told Al Jazeera.
“At smaller coffee shops, they usually only have basic coffee and tea. At Starbucks, even people who don’t like coffee or are dieting can order comfortably,” she said.
Starbucks is so popular in South Korea that it can appear like there is an outlet on nearly every block. The country is Starbucks’ fourth largest market, with 1,611 stores and almost 20,000 workers, which the company refers to as “partners”.
But despite the popularity of the brand – built on its sprawling menu, association with the American middle class and branded merchandise – the coffee giant is now facing a challenge to its image in South Korea in the form of scrutiny over working conditions at its stores. The way workers are responding could presage an evolution in labour activism in a country with a history of spirited protest.
In October, when the company held an event offering reusable cups with the purchase of a drink, baristas’ fatigue and frustrations boiled over.
On Blind, an app where employees can anonymously vent about workplace conditions, workers complained of low wages and poor conditions. Some recounted horror stories of having as many as 650 drinks on order at a time, while scrambling to pour, mix and serve an endless stream of customers while making no mistakes, smiling and maintaining friendly customer service.
In December, Ryu Ho-jeong, a left-wing politician, released the results of a survey that found 613 Starbucks workers sought mental health treatment due to job stress in 2020, a more than five-fold increase compared with 2015. The survey also found that workplace accidents had tripled over the previous year.
To draw attention to their plight, workers hired a flatbed truck with a massive light-screen to drive from downtown Seoul to the busy Gangnam area in the city’s south, broadcasting their grievances to the hordes of customers that gather at Starbucks locations across the city after lunch. The screen carried text that addressed the company with messages including “‘Partners’ are your biggest asset. Don’t forget that” and “We won’t take it any more”.
The protest made national headlines, and succeeded in getting concessions from Starbucks Korea, which pledged to hire 1,600 more workers to ease conditions in their stores. The company, which entered South Korea in 1999 at a time when brewed coffee was a novelty, also promised to introduce wage increases based on seniority and performance.
While the Starbucks workers were waging their battle, the stalwarts of labour organising in South Korea took notice of how a group of young service industry workers were able to win both attention and material gains.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a major umbrella labour group that has more than one million members in industries across the country, welcomed the Starbucks workers’ actions and encouraged them to work towards establishing a union.
“Through the formation of a labour union, the workers can address their grievances,” the KCTU said in a statement.
The Starbucks protesters, most of them aged in their 20s and 30s, swiped left on the invitation to unionise, saying that instead of engaging in collective bargaining with Starbucks management, they could more effectively communicate their needs through innovative tactics like the truck protest.
In South Korea, labour unions have for decades been fixtures in shipyards and factories, but recent years have seen efforts towards unionisation at some of the country’s most innovative companies, including tech titans Kakao and Naver.
Yu Gyu-chang, a professor of human resource management at Hanyang University, told Al Jazeera that South Korean work culture is becoming more mindful of workers’ wellbeing.
“Social pressure has been increasing along with the voice of millennials and generation Z,” Yu said.
The increased labour organisation is coming at a time when inequality is a central topic in South Korea’s public discourse, reflected in the pop culture phenomenon Squid Game, as many in the country seek ways to earn a stable living in an increasingly cutthroat economy.
According to data released in December by the labour ministry, South Korea’s unionisation rate increased in 2020 to 14.2 percent, up from 12.5 percent the previous year.
“Many young people want to work at companies that have unions because they recognise that unions can provide protections and help them get the benefits they want,” Lee Byoung-hoon, an expert on industrial relations at Chung-Ang University, told Al Jazeera.
“What they don’t like is the old style of union activism in Korea, the militant struggle, the fighting and the protesting.”
Ryu, the politician, said in a statement that her survey showed that conditions for Starbucks workers are still in need of improvement.
“There will inevitably be a second and third truck protest,” she said.
While their victory is incomplete, the way the Starbucks workers grabbed their bosses’ – and the country’s – attention could portend an evolution in South Korean labour organising, away from the conventional protests of old and towards an era where workers seek fresh ways to communicate their demands.
“For protests by the young generation, more important than the success, failure or amount of attention they get, is that they don’t want their arguments or intentions to be misrepresented even a little,” said Lim Myung-ho, a professor of psychology at Dankook University.
“They have the confidence they can get their opinion out without outside help,” Lim said. “There will be more cases like Starbucks.”