Working with Women Workers

by Carol on May 23rd, 2010

In the fall of 1987, Greg arrived in South Korea, a tall, poised young man in his late twenties with a strong New England accent, in order to do Peace and Justice work. He learned Korean at a language school and then helped a priest set up a center which held English conversation classes for college and university students. The classes were directed toward clarification of values and building self-esteem. When the center closed, Greg asked to be placed in ministry to factory workers. Here is our 1991 interview.

[See also the link on your right to a review of Hagen Koo, “Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Ithaca: Cornell, 2001). What the Book? in Seoul carries the book.

Gregory’s Story

I was very happy at being allowed to join two Maryknoll sisters working in a ministry for factory workers. The community life was great—we ate together, we prayed together, we worked together on programs.

To give you some background in the labor situation, the big industrial conglomerates, the chaebǒl, have moderate unions which are generally not management-dictated, but they tend to be a little more moderate than radical, although they will strike when they have to. The big companies have maybe 15,000 to 20,000 workers at each plant. When twenty thousand people go on strike—like a big shipyard in Ulsan—that affects the whole city. Then 20,000 riot police are sent in. Generally only the big companies use replacement workers, or scabs. Those companies are located in cities outside of Seoul, and the labor pool they have to choose from is limited. The foreign-owned companies—either Japanese or American or German—just shut the company down. They’ll move to another country or another part of the country. That’s how they break a union or resolve any kind of labor dispute.

In 1987 the unions blossomed, then in 1988 when the workers went on strike for better benefits, after maybe a month, the companies in small communities suddenly gave in to labor and said, “Okay, you can have a union. We’ll give you everything.” Then one morning the workers showed up at the factory and all the machinery was gone, and the management was not to be found. They left without paying any wages or any severance pay. They took all the money from the employee savings plan, the company union dues—everything. Now when there’s some kind of negotiation going on, the workers always have somebody on watch at the factory to make sure management isn’t fooling around.

The main strategy these companies use is the labor law, which says only one union can represent a company and that union has to be registered with the government. The management sets up a union which won’t get out of line., a “yellow union,” rushes down to sign up. If another union claims to represent the workers in the factory, it’s breaking the law. There are a lot of illegal democratic unions in the medium-sized to small companies. If they’re espousing some type of ideology, the companies can claim the organizers are also violating the National Security Law. It’s illegal for a third party to be involved in union activity. The government considers the national labor federation a third party, so the organizers could be put in jail. It’s a very big, pretty strong organization, but the government already has its own federation of labor unions.

Most of the workers in the Kuro industrial area, about 60-70%, are young women between the ages of eighteen to twenty-five. This is an industrial area where they make electronic components—stereo parts, computer keyboards, equipment of that nature. The only unions are the “yellow” unions. We are working with young workers who are much worse off economically than blue-collar workers in our society. I helped with programs for traditional Korean music, traditional dance, traditional songs. We also had some Bible study classes, and I taught some basic English classes and some classes in labor law.

But there was a problem. Even back in the States I’d probably have had a hard time relating to blue-collar workers. I came from a white middle-class, white-collar background. I went to a Catholic high school where 95% of the kids went on to college. Here, when I first started this work, most of the workers were women and much younger than I was. They were sending me signals like “You’re brighter than me, you’re smarter, you have it more together than me.” I couldn’t accept that, but I also knew I couldn’t relate to them very well. So I knew I had to start challenging myself so I could help them with their struggles. I needed to know what was bothering them. I began to realize that these young women didn’t have any confidence in themselves at all. I saw that in school they were told, “There’s no way you’re going to college, you can’t afford it, so you might as well get used to the fact that you’re going to a factory.”

They had to come up to an industrial area to make money to send home to families, often so that the son could go to school. I had heard stories like this, but it’s different when you meet someone who says, “I’m here earning the money so my brother can go to school. We’re not farming anymore. We had to sell the land.” They were just not making it. Some were unable to finish high school. Everything’s free through grammar school, but when you start middle school you have to pay $150 a semester. High school is probably about $250 a semester.

We began to see the things that we needed to work on were self-development things. Let people talk to one another, try not to force anything on them, ask them, “How do you feel?”

“We’re both kind of stressed out after work.”

“Why is that?”

You let them talk about it. They have to look into little microscopes while they put tiny pieces together, so there’s a lot of eyestrain. Back strain, too, because they’re told, “Pick up that box and move it.” The boxes may be too heavy. But the biggest complaint is that they’re not treated as human beings. They are always spoken to with pan-mal, the lowest form of Korean, used for children and intimate relationships. Obviously the relationship between the worker and the supervisor isn’t intimate, so it’s an insult. They’re never called by name, but nom-a, “you thing” or “you it,” as in “you it, come over here and do this.” It drives them up the wall to be treated this way.

These young women realized they all felt the same way about this, and they wondered what to do about it. Well, the thing is, it’s very hard to do anything. It seems simple to us to say, “Okay, just talk to the supervisor and have this corrected,” but they have no voice because they have no real union. They can’t make any complaints.

I live with a worker right now. He was sick as a dog the other day, and I said, “Stay in bed.”

“Look, I have to go to work.

“What do you mean, you have to go to work? Obviously, you’re not going to get much done at work because you’re sick. Don’t you get sick days?”

 “No no no, we don’t get sick days.”


Sometimes they have to show up at work, do some work for a little while and then say to the supervisor, “Oh, I’m sick as a dog. You can see how I look.” He might send you home, or he might say, “No, we need you to stay and work.”

There’s no voice calling for benefits we take for granted in the States. If a worker complains to the management union representatives, who are appointed, there’s a good chance that nothing will be resolved and the worker will be punished and branded as a trouble-maker who needs to be put under control.

Management also gets employees to become goons for the company by giving them money or taking them to bars and room salons [hostess bars with private rooms so the women can take off their clothes]. The goons try to keep the girls in place or intimidate them using anything from verbal abuse to sexual harassment. There’ve been cases where the workers have been stripped. We’ve been seeing a lot more of that sort of thing under the Roh Tae-woo administration—far more. They’ve been trying to round up the former and present union organizers and throw them in jail.

I went home on vacation, and when I got back I was going to start up my programs again. Then I heard, “Oh no, that’s not a good idea.”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

Then I heard that all the young women who had been attending my English class had been pulled into the factory office and questioned, along with people who had attended the other team members’ programs. They were interrogated for four or five hours by the factory supervisors and passed around to the bosses at different levels. Many of them were suddenly moved out of the factory and sent to other areas to work, so now instead of a 15-minute commute they have an hour and a half-commute—partly as a punishment, partly to see that they don’t stick together. Management has ways of crushing or nipping in the bud any type of consciousness-raising.

They also knew all about me. The company’s asking, “What do you know about this guy? Why are you studying with him?” I was flabbergasted. I know I’m a Westerner and I stick out, but they knew who I was, where I lived and all these things about me. They also knew a lot of things about our team. These companies are very well organized, and they work with the police. They send people around.

A lot of the girls had been followed. One of the women who lived at our center had been followed home a couple of times and intimidated. When she was being interrogated at the factory, she recognized the guy who followed her home. They offered her money to move out of the center. She didn’t even participate in the program. She was a Catholic, and she just wanted a place to live outside of the dormitory. When she was being questioned, this woman figured out what was going on, and she was indignant. She said, “You’re not going to tell me what to do.”

I see the real struggle is with the workers, not the students. The students are not going to take these 200,000 won [$277] a month jobs. Generally women aren’t sent to vocational high schools for technical skills, so they aren’t paid much. The workers get 200,000 or 250,000—180,000 sometimes—and put in unbelievable hours. They might earn 200,000 won a month working a 44-hour week. But they’re often asked to do overtime. They might get very excited because they make a lot of money one week, but they worked sixty hours. They push themselves because, if they do the night shift from nine to seven, they get more per hour. Even though the government says they’re only supposed to be working 46 hours a week, I would say most workers get in 54 hours—some a lot more. The work week is Monday through Saturday. One of the workers told me, “But on Saturday we get off at six. Isn’t that great?”

Here’s a typical situation. An eighteen-year-old, female high school graduate, or near-graduate, comes up to Seoul. In the railway station or bus terminals, she sees signs on the “help wanted” board. A notice for a factory job paying 200,000 won a month might be next to one for a café job at 600,000 won a month. Well, she’s eighteen years old, and she’s made it to the big city, and she wants to live well, and she thinks everybody else dresses well and has a car. She knows she’s not going to get far on 200,000 won a month. That’s the first hurdle.

Working for the owners of the cafés or room salons is almost slavery. A young woman may earn 600,000 won, but they deduct 100,000 for her room and board and 200,000 for another fee and 100,000 for something else. All of a sudden, she’s in debt. Sometimes she does make some money, maybe after a year.

In these room salons the factory owners or businessmen come in to drink beer or something, but usually they’re already buzzed. It’s not their first stop. The woman pours the beer and cuddles up next to the guy and feeds his ego by giggling and acting helpless—the act’s really dumb. This can lead to their going to a yǒgwan, an inn or hotel. The room salons are places where women can make contacts to become a prostitute or to be prostituted.

To keep up this lifestyle, the young woman gets involved in drugs. A lot of drugs are available over the counter—Valium, for example. Drugs are handed out by the owners of these cafés or room salons. “Here, take this drug. It will keep you going.” These room salons are not for the U.S. army. This is a Korean thing, and there are also many red-light districts for Koreans which are more obviously about prostitution than the room salons.

But getting back to the young woman at the job notice board, maybe she’s been warned about the cafés or the room salons, so she chooses a factory. Sometimes the factories say, “Complete your high school education with us.” In that case, she works all day, then at about six or seven o’clock at night she goes to school for around four hours, then to bed. If she misses school she loses her next day’s wages. They control women to make sure they don’t get involved in any activity outside the company.

So she finds a job, and then she’s got to find a place to live, like in one of the government dormitories. They are only about 15,000 or 30,000 won a month, but she only gets a third of a small room, not a place she can really lounge around in. There’s a kitchen in each apartment, so she can cook for herself. The grounds are always kept neat, and they seem to have good security. No men visitors. If she doesn’t want that, she might be able to find a room—maybe share it with another girl for 30,000 apiece. Unfortunately, in our area those rooms are becoming hard to find because the government development and beautification projects are eliminating all the cheap rooms. If you’re a worker who’s been able to save money for a couple of years, you might be able to buy a government-subsidized apartment. But if you’re just getting started, it’s hard to find a decent place to live.

These young women are alone when they come up here.Seoul is much different from the countryside. At home the typical young woman lives with her family and is surrounded by her family all day long. In the countryside it’s not as crowded or congested. Then all of a sudden she’s thrown into an apartment with seven other people she doesn’t even know. That has to have an effect on her. Loneliness is probably the biggest problem. But of course she does get a paycheck, and out in the country she didn’t have any money.

So she gets set up, and after a couple of years she becomes restless and wonders if this is all life’s about. When they’re around twenty-two, the girls start thinking of marriage. All they do is look at wedding dresses. They see how beautiful that is. “If I get married and I become a mother, I can stay at home, and I won’t have to be at this machine day in and day out, working all these hours and going crazy. They meet some man—usually another factory worker—and they live together. She thinks they’re moving down the road toward marriage. All of a sudden she’s pregnant, and he leaves. She’s left looking at the most likely option, abortion, which is fairly well accepted here [although illegal]. Even the Catholic bishops never talk about it. There are GYN-OB clinics all over the place. The government wants population control. They encourage people to have one child, two at the most. We have some health and sexuality education classes which deal with some of the problems. They’re very popular with the girls.

But suppose she does get married. It used to be thought that a woman would quit and have a baby within the first year of marriage and that the man would continue on. This was the rationale for paying women anywhere from 20% to 30% less for exactly the same work. In Korean companies the men get a special benefit or increase in pay if they have a child, so they get a little more money, but nowadays that’s not enough. So the woman has to go back to work.

Unfortunately, most daycare centers don’t accept children under three years of age. These days you often hear about accidents that happened to very young children left at home alone. News of such neglect contributes to the widely believed opinion that mothers need to stay home to look after their children. Few people have any happy experience of possible alternatives. There’s a new phenomenon arising now, centers for infants and babies to three years old. One of the Maryknoll missions started one in Taejun. These are desperately needed. A lot of missionaries and labor movement people are trying to offer infants’ daycare services so women can go back to work, because one income now is no longer enough to live on. For the working-class this means eating less nutritious food, doing without meat and cutting down on certain vegetables. People turn to junk food—cakes and ramyǒn. Sometimes you wonder how they can get by on what they eat. They do get fed at work, though. That’s part of their benefits. I think they depend on their lunch. If they work after the dinner hour, they get fed dinner. I don’t know if it’s worth the sacrifice.

I’ve learned a lot from the workers about their lives and about how people can treat other people in the worst ways. It’s definitely affected me personally. It’s challenged my faith and everything I believe about the human spirit. Why do the supervisors treat the women like they do instead of like human beings? I always believed there was goodness in people. But here mistreatment is so institutionalized. Women from many different factories have the same complaints.