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Occupy the Highway! Tollgate Workers’ Flexibility and Urban Infrastructure in South Korea

Authors: Heejin Choi*, Center for Asian Urban Societies, Seoul National University
Topics: Qualitative Research, Gender, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: mobility, flexibility, labor, precarity, infrastructure
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The purpose of this paper is to understand the relationship between mobility and labor flexibility. Focusing on the case of highway toll collectors in South Korea, this ethnographic study explores how the politics of mobility can be socio-spatially discriminated and unequally experienced. In the context of globalization and neo-liberalism, the discourse of labor flexibility means restructuring under the values of innovation and efficiency. The tollgate workers are not only considered low-skilled and low value-added, but also placed in precarity due to outsourcing and workplaces on the road. There are mostly women, and some men with disabilities. With the recent installation of the automated tolling system, and the state-run corporation having its newly-launched subsidiary, the workers were primarily targeted for mass-layoffs. The women workers have been struggling with negotiations despite workers’ rights activities, including filing lawsuits, staging a sit-in protest on top of the canopy of the Seoul tollgate and blocking the highway. This study argues that the most extreme manifestation of neoliberal labor control is mobility-related labor. This is because efficiency of the infrastructure can be ensured when the workers get closer to the machine rather than the human being (i.e., when the human becomes like automated tolling system). In other words, it is a key point of the mobility-related labor that workers become the part of human and non-human convergence infrastructure that enables mobility.

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