Digital platforms have played a significant role in restructuring the global workforce and transforming work arrangements. While often celebrated by techno-optimists for their innovative disruption, the rise of platforms and platform-mediated work has been closely associated with higher levels of precarity and insecurity among workers. The legal status of platform workers has been widely discussed in recent years, typically in the context of what is known as “uberization”. The term refers to the business model pioneered by the ride-hailing app Uber, which is built around on-demand online service provision, mostly by individual contractors with little or no access to basic rights and protection.
Central to this discussion has been the idea that companies like Uber, Lyft, and Deliveroo have disrupted labor markets by exploiting a legal ‘gray area’ outside formally regulated employment relationships. However, this perspective overlooks important elements that should be considered when thinking about protection measures for platform workers. This is illustrated in the case of the South Korean creative content industry.
Creative Platform Labor in South Korea
In South Korea, narrative content such as webtoons (digital comics) and web novels, which are serialized on digital platforms, have become very popular in recent years, especially among young adults and teenagers. The Korean webtoon market in particular has grown by 4.1 times since 2017, reaching KRW 1.56 trillion (approx. USD 1.5 billion) in 2021. It has thus attracted interest as a new business opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors. However, this success has been overshadowed by the massive deterioration of working conditions among creators, who have seen an increase in labor intensity, working hours, incidences of physical and mental health issues, along with worsening gender inequality.
These conditions correlate with market concentration. Digital content apps owned by Naver and Kakao, Korea’s leading online service providers, channeled 41.8% and 29% of the traffic for webtoons in 2020, respectively. In 2022, they occupied the first and second positions in terms of webtoon and web novel readership. The two platforms exploit their duopoly by imposing a complex subcontracting structure, whereby individual creators must pass through one or more intermediary companies, known as content providers (CP) or agencies, in order to serialize their content on the platform. This structure of double intermediation has led to the polarization of the market between a minority of elite creators who can deal directly with the platforms, and many others who must work with smaller market players under substandard conditions.
Content creators at the bottom of the subcontracting pyramid are more likely to be locked into unfair contractual arrangements. Many of them face issues such as low income, indebtedness, extortionate commission fees, arbitrary decision-making with regard to content serialization, and a lack of transparency concerning the algorithmic rules which influence pricing and content visibility. Many of these are common issues within the broad spectrum of platform and gig work, and are linked to workers’ structural inequality and low bargaining power vis-à-vis the platform companies – who claim to treat them as individual entrepreneurs. However, there is a distinctive element attached to creative platform labor.
This structure of double intermediation has led to the polarization of the market between a minority of elite creators who can deal directly with the platforms, and many others who must work with smaller market players under substandard conditions.
Unlike other occupational groups, content creators have historically offered their services as freelancers and in the form of piece rates, even in the analogue era. Furthermore, creative jobs are typically associated with high degrees of flexibility and autonomy from management. In this respect, it is important to understand how the rise of platforms has affected the working lives of creators, who have rarely been part of a formal employment relationship. The platformization of creative work, i.e., the substitution of digital platforms for traditional publishers, has resulted in the intensification of top-down control over the labor process by restructuring the industry around the rules made by dominant platforms.
Before the rise of platforms, narrative content used to be published in print books and magazines. The production and distribution of manuscripts was coordinated between authors, publishers, and booksellers, and mostly took place before the contents of the manuscript were fully exposed to a mass audience. Digital platforms integrate and centralize these processes, such that content quality assessment, price-setting, and promotion now happen almost in real-time, and are continuously affected by audience reactions, expectations, and feedback. In particular, web novelists and webtoon creators work at the rhythm of a pre-determined serialization cycle, which typically involves completing and uploading bite-sized content, such as one or more episodes from a webtoon series, on a weekly basis. This process is overseen by a Producer/Director (PD) who monitors progress and performs quality checks. Such interference can become quite prescriptive, and tends to reproduce criteria that have proven to be successful among readers based on engagement data. If creators fail to cooperate or do not reach the expected success rates, they can have their series suspended or even deleted, and lose their income. Perhaps most alarmingly, ideological censorship by platforms against female writers and artists who lean toward feminism or speak out on gender discrimination has been on the rise in the past few years.
Consequently, creators are increasingly under pressure to fit into a limited range of popular genres (such as romance or fantasy), and stereotypical storylines that rely on visual marketing, causing serious concerns about the dwindling diversity and originality in content creation. This also leads to higher quantitative demands on individual creators and longer working hours, with webtoon artists working an average of 10.5 hours per day. The structural demands generated by platforms have brought these creators closer to conventional employment relationships, creating rigidity in the labor process and giving rise to managerialism. This situation is not particularly welcome in the industry, and this is significant in terms of how possible solutions to protect creative workers are envisaged.
Security or Autonomy: A Necessary Trade-off?
Discussions on the protection of platform workers have revolved around the question of determining who is an ‘employee’, as specified by relevant labor legislation and juridical interpretation. Accordingly, interventions in this debate tend to focus on resolving the issue of misclassification or ‘bogus’ self-employment, and the integration of platform workers into the existent scope of labor protection. This is based on the assumption that the actual circumstances of these workers often meet the legal criteria for the establishment of an employment relationship, which is prevented by the platforms’ attempt to escape employer responsibility. A similar situation can be observed in the case of creative workers, where the control exercised by platforms or intermediary companies over the pace, intensity, and content of work is at odds with their freelancer status. But there are also cases where control is indirect or implicit, which makes it difficult to argue that all platform workers fit the legal definition of an employee. This is also seen in other industries. For instance, the algorithms and task allocation systems in ride-hailing and delivery apps do not determine the working patterns of drivers and couriers in an absolute sense. In addition, workers may come up with strategies to circumvent algorithmic control. This difficulty arises from the binary structure of labor regulation in South Korea, as well as in many other countries: a person is either an employee or self-employed (which includes freelance and gig workers), and their status is determined through the degree of worker subordination, including employer control over work, as well as workers’ economic, spatiotemporal, and logistical dependency as determined by a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, which interprets the Labor Standards Act and the Trade Union Act. Internationally, there are some exceptions to this a priori, such as the case of the intermediary ‘worker’ category in the UK under the Employment Rights Act. However, in practice this category tends to be collapsed into either employment or self-employment for tax and social security purposes.
The platformization of creative work, i.e., the substitution of digital platforms for traditional publishers, has resulted in the intensification of top-down control over the labor process by restructuring the industry around the rules made by dominant platforms.
Due to this legal constraint, the struggle for labor rights within independent Korean labor unions in the platform-based creative industry, namely the Digital Content Freelancer Union and the Webtoon Creator Union, has been tinged with ambivalence. Activists deem it important to acknowledge the forms of employment subordination arising in platform-worker relationships, to enable the reclassification of creative platform workers as employees and put an end to the severe precarity many of them face. There are several precedents in case law in South Korea as well as the US, Europe, and elsewhere. In Korea, for instance, drivers working for the ride-hailing app, Tada, were initially recognized as employees in 2020, but saw the court decision reversed two years later.
However, there is a great deal of reluctance among creators themselves toward this approach, as it implies subsuming them into traditional employment relationships. In order to be included in the scope of protection afforded to employees, they must provide evidence of control over the creative process (such as instructions to modify or remove content) by the platforms or agencies, formalizing a practice that they resent. Instead, many would prefer to fully recover the creative freedom and autonomy that the platforms’ power structure has jeopardized.
Becoming an employee might also involve copyright loss. Indeed, while intellectual property rights are negotiated as part of the contract between individual creators and businesses, employment contracts may lead to creative content being construed as a ‘work made for hire’, in other words, as property of the employer. This may be considered an acceptable trade-off for some creative workers, given that they would acquire job security and employment benefits in return. However, integration into standard wage labor may also involve systematized exclusion from revenue shares and additional earnings from copyright exploitation that freelancers are normally entitled to. Most distinctively, it also poses a challenge for creators’ professional identity, which is tied to a strong artistic agency as well as a sense of authorship.
Consequently, creative workers face the dilemma of choosing between protection from the various insecurities attached to self-employment as constructed within platformization, and the autonomy afforded to them by such a status. This contradiction is not restricted to creative or platform work, but indicates a broader problem posed by an outdated binary legal model, which clings to the use of control tests to determine who is entitled to labor rights. Under this model, most workers in standard employment are expected to enter into a formal commitment with an organization that demands that they give up their freedom to organize their own working life and to choose the conditions thereof, in exchange for a guaranteed minimum wage and benefits. In contrast, workers who prioritize freedom and flexibility must do so at their own expense, living at the mercy of the market without predictable earnings and low or absent safety nets.
Creative workers face the dilemma of choosing between protection from the various insecurities attached to self-employment as constructed within platformization, and the autonomy afforded to them by such a status.
This system perpetuates class and gender disparities and an unfair distribution of risks and obligations. Women and individuals with caring responsibilities, who may need temporal, spatial, or administrative flexibility as a prerequisite for entry into the labor market, are disproportionately pushed away into non-standard employment. Such flexibility comes with lower bargaining power and various structural disadvantages. A 2017 study found that female freelancers, who constitute more than 66% of webtoon creators in South Korea, are paid on average 25% less than men. Female creators are also more likely to experience unfair contract termination, power abuse, and exploitation.
More generally, in a modern society where cultural expectations have moved away from traditional full-time jobs toward digital nomad lifestyles and passion-driven work, the law must adjust to equally protect all individuals choosing this direction. On the other hand, the boundaries between dependent and independent work are becoming blurred even within standard employment due to the growing use of information technology and remote working arrangements. This highlights the need to redefine and broaden the concepts of labor and labor rights beyond employment.
Envisioning Labor Rights beyond Employment-centrism
The idea of integrating platform, creative, freelance, and other precarious workers into the category of employment may be viewed as the most straightforward response to the poor conditions that many of them currently endure. However, it also has clear limitations as a long-term solution in terms of addressing the various needs and circumstances of working people. Alternatives such as platform cooperatives, which have been proposed as an innovative solution to empower freelancers and gig workers, may offer some degree of support. Yet in a market dominated by large platforms, their influence is bound to be limited. So far, the platform cooperative model has not been successful in mobilizing Korean content creators.
A 2017 study found that female freelancers, who constitute more than 66% of webtoon creators in South Korea, are paid on average 25% less than men. Female creators are also more likely to experience unfair contract termination, power abuse, and exploitation.
Ultimately, the way forward is to expand labor rights to all individuals engaged in production and service provision. The debate on flexible work in the digital age can serve as an opportunity to challenge the normative assumptions of the standard employment relationship, which historically evolved out of negotiations undertaken predominantly by male blue collar industrial workers. Policy responses should be based on a vision of labor protection as a universal right rather than a privilege tied to employment status, which would make it unnecessary to draw any divisive lines between workers. An example of such a response includes a local government ordinance by the South Korean City of Seongnam, which used the concept of “working citizen” as a basis for providing social insurance to precarious workers. Although this initiative is very limited in scope, it can be considered as a starting point for a more inclusive and intersectional approach to labor rights, which understands plural identities within the working class, their differential structural positions and vulnerabilities. Achieving this requires relentless social struggle against free-market-oriented approaches, which seek to accommodate business imperatives by pushing workers outside the remit of protection.
Korean activists have already demonstrated the effectiveness of building solidarity between platform workers across different industries and civil society organizations by successfully mobilizing opposition against a pro-business bill on platform regulation in 2021.* They continue to strengthen their alliance in the face of a hostile conservative government. Increasing pressure from the bottom-up can push governments to hold platform businesses accountable and to improve the democratic representation of workers in relevant institutions and policymaking processes.
*The bill, titled ‘Law on Platform Worker Protection’ was proposed under the previous (left-wing) government, allegedly to offer indiscriminate protection to individuals who provide services through digital platforms. However, it was criticized for giving legitimacy to platform companies as mere intermediaries free of employer responsibility. The bill was not passed by the National Assembly.