The Kpop industry is known for producing machine-like idols. Trainees are micromanaged as soon as they sign along the dotted line, becoming commodities designed solely to entertain. With little to no agency over their own lives, potential idols are legally bound to these ‘slave contracts’ in their pursuit to fame, sacrificing their physical + mental wellbeing, time and money.
These contracts see idols putting their physical health in the hands of their agencies. Some trainees are forced to attend monthly evaluations which see them weighed – if they are found to have gained any weight, not only they are punished severely but they are humiliated in front of their peers. Punishments include extreme workout sessions and/or crash diets to lose any extra weight gained. Companies justify this by claiming that idols need to look their ‘best’ for television, adhering to beauty norms in Korea, but is this really the case? Some idols themselves seem to believe so, with Suga of BTS saying: “I’m thinking of going on a diet. To be honest, I may already be underweight, but as I’m in an industry that requires me to come out on television, I have no other choice but to maintain my appearance.” Suga’s mentality here reflects how strict these contracts are concerning body weight as he has ‘no other choice’ but to keep losing weight in order to be marketable.
From an outside perspective, this stranglehold companies have over their artists’ weight is a reflection of the power imbalance in the relationship between employer and employee.
The trauma that follows this contractual emphasis on dieting has been seen many times in the cases of idols who develop eating disorders. Ladies Code’s Sojung lost 18-20lbs pre-debut and lost another 11lbs suffering from anorexia. This malnutrition exacerbates the exhaustion these idols endure on a daily basis, leading to highly publicised incidents of fainting or injury during fan-meetings or performances. Gfriend’s SinB famously fainted mid-performance in 2016, around the same time fellow member Umji went on hiatus for a leg injury. A statement was released claiming SinB was perfectly fine and able to rejoin her members. The sentiment was made perfectly clear that these contracts are not drafted with artists’ wellbeing in mind, only their marketability.
Perhaps the most damning criticism of these contracts should be centred around the detrimental effect they have on their artists’ personal lives. YouTubers Soobeanie_ and grazygrace have both stated that trainees were monitored 24/7 and severely restricted socially. Soobeanie_, also known as Christine Park, is the former maknae of disbanded ground Blady and grazygrace was a contestant on Unpretty Rapstar. According to Park, trainees are forbidden from dating to ‘protect the image of the artist’ – grazygrace echoed these sentiments, claiming that this rule is imposed more so on women to preserve their ‘innocence’ and ‘purity.’ Grace also went on to claim that in her experience, girls and boys were segregated at all times, banned from communicating in any context in person or through the phone. From a human rights standpoint, this violates Article 17 of the International Convention of Civil and Political rights which states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” It should be noted that South Korea has ratified this convention, yet they are in breach of it if companies are being allowed to repress their artists in this way. The no dating ban is seen as a preventative measure against scandals which could ruin an artists’ reputation, but we must remember that idols are typically at the age where they should be exploring healthy relationships both platonically and romantically. Granted, these bans are usually lifted after roughly 3 years, but at this point the damage has already been done.
Idol hopefuls are also banned from meeting up with friends and family under most circumstances. To prevent them from doing so stunts their emotional and social development whilst also breaching Article 22 of the aforementioned convention which states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others.” Isolation is also a symptom of psychological abuse which should be regarded as a serious violation of human rights.
Grace alleges that during her time as a trainee she experienced the company’s repeated invasion of privacy firsthand. They would demand to check trainees’ phones for any unauthorised communication or social media accounts on the spot. If they found anything on these phones, they would punish all of the trainees collectively, making them practise on a Sunday – this is normally a rest day, as they trained from 10am to 10pm Monday to Saturday.
She herself lived in a dorm inside her company so they could monitor her throughout the day and was made to report to her manager whenever they wanted regardless of time or situation. It’s evident where the nickname ‘slave contract’ derived from; so far, we’ve seen forced dieting, physical neglect, overwork and now enforced isolation of young teenagers and adults.
It’s no surprise then, that mental health is a big issue in the Kpop sphere. In an environment where their careers become the centre of their lives, idols are especially vulnerable to mental health struggles. Top stars such as Suga and RM of BTS have spoken openly about depression and anxiety as a result of idol life – being under constant scrutiny not only from their companies but from fans and netizens alike is a toxic situation to be in.
The economic repercussions of these contracts span years beyond their expiration. Once a trainee actually starts training, they accrue a debt to the company; this includes costs for living, residence, training and media exposure. This debt can run up into the thousands, especially as these contracts last for years. Idols repay this debt by essentially working for free up to the ‘break-even’ point which is when the debt has been repaid. All payment from CF’s (Commercial films), promotions, tours and the like is swallowed by companies as their claiming of debt repayment; they are financially bound to the company with no economic independence until they are well established.
Prior to the FTC’s (Fair Trade Commission) intervention, companies were allowed to cancel contracts without notice and charge extortionate penalties that demanded immediate payment – if this was to happen to a trainee, this could force them into homelessness and tarnish their credit scores for years to come. Crippling debts and economic dependence is the main reason why many trainees unhappy with their situation would rather wait until the end of their contract instead of terminating it, as legal fees aren’t affordable – couple this with the fact that most trainees are forbidden from getting a part time job and it’s clear that some companies are abusing their economic hold over their trainees, preventing them from finding any way out of their contracts.
Potential idols had to hope that they would be the next big thing or see years of emotional and financial investment dissipate into thin air.
Contracts are of course essential to any business, there’s no disputing that. From a legal perspective it’s wise to have these boundaries on file for reference. But what do we do when the boundaries between employer and employee are blurred? These contracts see trainee lives become synonymous with their careers – everything they do has a knock-on effect on their reputations as artists. It’s almost as if they don’t exist as regular people outside of the persona they adopt in front of the camera. Employment contracts should revolve around the professional business relationship between the company and employee only – it shouldn’t branch into restricting a person’s liberty and autonomy. In recent years, companies have made steps to alter their contracts, but the sad truth is is that many trainees and idols are still suffering under variants of the original Kpop ‘slave contract.’ Idols are seen as company property of high economic value rather than people and they deserve better.
Opinions expressed are solely the writer’s own and may not represent the views or opinions of UnitedKpop Ltd.
Sources: grazygrace, soobeanie_, international convention of civil and political rights