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  • Shannon McGuigan

Not just a popular Netflix show: Squid Game highlighting South Korea's modern-day slavery

By Shannon McGuigan

Netflix has popularized many non-English languages shows such as La Casa de Papel (Money Heist), Elite and Narcos. Its original series shows becoming a global hit is nothing new to the streaming platform either, with shows such as You, On My Block, Sex Education and Stranger Things becoming commonly watched shows on the screens of our TVs.

Despite Netflix’s continued success with creating global smash hit shows, the South Korean drama Squid Game has surpassed the records set by its Netflix Original peers. The addictive dystopian drama quickly became a social media phenomenon with many discussing the twist, turns and stories of Squid Game. Its popularity soared as it quickly becoming the most-watched Netflix show in 90 countries.

Squid Game has taken over our TV screens but the show itself highlights some controversial topics that have remained largely undiscussed on an international platform.

The character Abdul Ali played by actor Anupam Tripathi, tells a story that is an ever-growing issue in South Korea, modern-day slavery. In Squid Game, the language the character Ali uses in reference to others is incredibly significant. Specifically, when he speaks to Cho Sang-woo he often refers to him as what appears in the English subtitles as “Sir”. However, Ali is calling Sang-woo “사장님- sanjang-nim” which means boss or CEO.

In the backdrop of Ali being a migrant worker, the words he calls Sang-woo are significant as Sang-woo is not Ali’s boss but a peer within the games. The language used between the two, and Ali's story as a migrant worker in Kores speaks to a darker and more sinister issue within South Korea.

Despite the Employment Permit System being described as a “win-win solution” for both South Korean employers and Asian migrants looking for better-paid employment. However, the 16-year-old system allows for the exploitation of these migrants desperate to make a better life in South Korea.

February of this year the BBC documented South Korea’s hidden’ migrant workers unveiling horrific living and working standards for migrant workers in South Korea. Many migrant workers were living and working on a farmland of plastic-covered greenhouses with a frozen water system only miles outside of Asia’s most affluent city Seoul.

In Squid Games, we see Ali being denied pay and openly being exploited by his employer. This storyline is not a far cry from reality and for many migrant workers in South Korea speaks to a dark and saddening reality of exploitation and modern-day slavery. A migrant fisherman who only wanted to be referenced as Lopes M. told the Korean Herald that during anchovy season he would be working 15 to 20 hours a day, but would not earn more money despite the grueling hours of work. He was practically imprisoned and isolated off the coast of Gunsan in Gaeyado.

Rev. Kim Dal-Seong from Pocheon Migrant Workers’ Centre told the BBC that these migrant workers are often “bound entirely to the owners” creating a “complete master-servant relationship, which is in “complete violation of labour and human rights”.

South Korea’s labour ministry told the BBC in February that they intend to improve conditions in the country for migrant workers. They said that they would tackle this issue by denying employers with illegal temporary housing permits and enrolling migrant workers in health and wage insurance.

So next time you watch Squid Games it’s important to know that the exploitation, horrendous living conditions and prejudice experienced by the character of Ali are not only a storyline but a representation of an epidemic of exploitation that occurs in the shadows of South Korean society.

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