Unions spread through gaming industry

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Unions spread through gaming industry

Workers at game developing companies are scrambling to set up unions to improve their notoriously rigorous work environments.

On Wednesday, game developers at Smilegate announced the creation of a new union, SG Guild, under the chemical, textile and food industry division of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the country’s second-largest umbrella union after the Federation of Korean Trade Unions.

Workers at other subsidiaries of the Smilegate group - such as Smilegate Entertainment, Smilegate Megaport, Smilegate RPG and Smilegate Stove - can also join the union.

Smilegate is best known for Crossfire, one of the most popular first-person shooter games, and the group has 2,200 employees in a total of nine subsidiaries.

“The company has been posting enormous revenues each year, but our salaries haven’t changed a lot,” said SG Guild in a statement. “The flexible working hour system has never been flexible as workers had to keep up with excessively tight schedules.”

The launch came just two days after Nexon, the second-largest game developer, saw over 300 employees create a union to scrap a so-called inclusive wage system and improve a poor working environment.

Under the inclusive wage system, otherwise known as a blanket or comprehensive wage system, employees agree to work overtime for no extra pay when signing their annual contract. A number of smaller businesses have been taking advantage of that system as a means to avoid paying overtime.

Game developers often work long hours before launching a new game to fix bugs. That type of work is dubbed “crunch mode.”

Two employees of Netmarble, a top game developer, died in 2016 due to the heavy pressure of crunch mode, prompting the company to improve working conditions.

Even after companies with 300 or more workers were forced to implement a 52-hour maximum workweek in July, most game developers in Korea have maintained both crunch mode and the inclusive wage system. That has led to the forming of labor unions.

“We will turn crunch mode into a better work-life-balance mode,” said SG Guild, vowing to abolish the inclusive wage system and introduce a flexible work system that takes into account different situations at different divisions.

Headlines were made in April when employees of Naver, operator of the country’s biggest internet portal, launched a union. Workers at IT companies have been relatively nonchalant about collective action, given that developers and engineers, who make up the biggest portion of the workforce, tend to move from one company to another with little loyalty.

Korean-born IT companies, including game developers Netmarble, NCSoft and Kakao, have organized bodies that represent employees in negotiations with managements over welfare and other worker rights-related issues, but they are not labor unions and the representatives are not allowed to exercise rights guaranteed by the labor law.

Analysts predicted that the creation of a union at Naver would have a ripple effect on other companies.

BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun@joongang.co.kr]
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