Accepted paper:

Working drugs: female call centre workers' labour, smoking and subjectivity in South Korea


Kwanwook Kim (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

Women's smoking rates in South Korea are increasing despite the harsh stigma with respect to female smoking in the country. Ethnographic research in a call centre highlighted the role of tobacco as a 'working drug', regardless of the stigma its users face in other situations.

Paper long abstract:

Public health statistics are starting to uncover particularly high smoking rates amongst certain groups such as female call centre workers in South Korea. I undertook six months' ethnographic research in a call centre to understand the role of smoking in the lives of its largely female workforce of 400. Thirty five per cent of the women working there smoked (compared to a Korean average of 8%). In this environment, cigarettes had become, and were used as, efficient working drugs ('tools'). Women who smoked were provided with a comfortable, easily accessible outdoor smoking area and guaranteed smoking breaks. As they normally lacked opportunities to smoke freely in public due to others' indignant stares, the call centre was a smoking 'heaven' for them. Employees who smoked explained their habit with reference to the anger and stress of dealing with difficult calls. They also appreciated the social contact and 'break time' smoking permitted them. However, their employers allowed workers to smoke not through concern for their welfare but as a way of managing their emotional labour more efficiently. The physical and electronic surveillance systems in place, and the need for workers to earn bonuses based on number of calls answered, meant that no employee spent more than four minutes in the smoking area. Smoking thus became deeply embedded in workers' lives while at the same time leading to the reproduction of embodied social stigma rather than resistance to it.

panel P08
Tobacco and Enlightenment