The “Mad Bitches” of S. Korea’s Irregular Workforce Fight Back

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For sixteen years, Pak Geum-ja was a cafeteria worker at a public school in Suncheon, South Korea. She worked next to appliances that made so much noise that she began to lose her sense of hearing. Her job wore her down so much that her mouth was constantly full of pus-filled blisters. She made less than 500,000 won (around 440 U.S. dollars) a month. She thought of quitting countless times but always ended up throwing away her resignation letter as she had two young children to support. In 2010, she said, “Enough is enough.” She started calling other cafeteria workers in her region and proposed the idea of forming a union.

Irregular female workers like Pak are emerging as the new face of organized labor in South Korea. Earlier this summer, tens of thousands of irregular contract workers at public schools nationwide walked off their jobs on June 29. They were mostly women working as caregivers, cleaners and cafeteria staff, demanding regular employment (i.e., full-time with job security and benefits) as well as an increase in wages.

“Irregular workers” refer to part-time and/or short-term contract workers, usually without the job security or benefits guaranteed to regular, permanent employees. Women comprise the majority of the South Korean irregular workforce, currently estimated at nearly 9 million and steadily growing due to neoliberal policies aimed at increasing labor flexibility and reducing labor costs.

“I stand next to a hot grill and a boiling pot all day. I become soaked with sweat down to my underwear. I work like crazy so that I can take a short break, but my supervisor thinks I’m resting because I don’t have enough to do. He doesn’t see how hard I hustle just so that I can take a ten-minute break,” wrote an anonymous cafeteria worker on the online bulletin board of the National School Irregular Workers Union (NSIWU), which includes cafeteria and administrative staff, librarians, computer room assistants, caregivers, as well as special education teachers and counselors.

Around 20,000 workers in over three thousand public schools — 27 percent of public schools nationwide — participated in the June walk-out, forcing many schools to cut classes short, according to the South Korean Ministry of Education.

Over 40 percent of all public school employees are irregular workers, according to the NSIWU. The union estimates the total number of irregular public school employees at approximately 400,000.

Pak founded the NSIWU in 2010. “I woke up at the break of dawn to cook and wash my kids’ school uniforms before going to work. As soon as I finished work, I would organize [labor action] in the evenings,” she said.

Since Pak was prohibited from using her cell phone while on the job, she often hid in the storage closet to reach out to workers in other schools. In just 40 days, Pak and her colleagues organized 1,700 irregular public school workers and launched the union in October 2010. After repeated rejections, the Labor Department finally recognized them as an official union in 2011. They now boast 50,000 members, and were one of the key organizers of the June walk-out.

The walk-out was not just a fight for the rights of irregular workers. Unavoidably, it was also a feminist cause. But not all women were sympathetic: Lee Eon-ju, a lawmaker from the centrist People’s Party, referred to the protesters as “mad bitches” in a conversation with a news reporter on Jun. 29.

“They are just middle-aged neighborhood women who make rice. Why do they need to be regular workers?”

Lee was forced to issue a public apology the next day, but her comment reflects a widespread prejudice that is at the root of subpar working conditions for women in South Korea. The patriarchal assumptions — that reproductive labor, such as cooking, cleaning, and caregiving, is undeserving of formal recognition as essential labor — undergirds the growing problem of labor flexibility in women-dominated sectors like service and education support. It’s not a coincidence that South Korea has the biggest gender pay gap out of all OECD nations.

The fight of irregular public school employees is part of a long history of struggle by South Korean women standing up for labor rights and gender equality.

The very “miracle” of South Korea’s economic expansion during Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s was achieved on the backs of young women, who toiled in export industrial zones that produced textiles, garments, electronics, and chemicals.

But the women weren’t just economic tools; many fought for their rights. Notable were the Cheonggye Garment Workers’ Union, which represented 20,000 women at Seoul’s Pyounghwa Market in Dongdaemun, and the women at Dongil Textile, where company-hired goons threw human excrement at them and the police assaulted and arrested them for demanding the right to elect their own union leadership.

Their struggles inspired the famous 1985 strike at the Guro Industrial Complex in Seoul: Tens of thousands of female workers at the various factories in the complex demanded better working conditions. When company-hired goons eventually broke up the strike, forty-four leaders were jailed for leading an illegal strike, more than a thousand workers were dismissed from their jobs, and countless others were wanted by the police and forced to go underground. The Guro strikes motivated the mass democratic and labor uprising that followed two years later, which eventually culminated in the resignation of dictator Chun Doo-hwan.

The modern-day labor movement in South Korea stands on the shoulders of countless nameless women workers, who risked their lives to resist labor exploitation and sexual violence at the workplace.

Two labor activists confront lawmaker Lee Eon-ju after her derogatory remarks about the protesters as “mad bitches.” “You go stand where we work on a day like today, just for an hour. See how much you sweat,” one of them told Lee, refusing to accept her apology.  

Pak Geum-ja, the cafeteria worker turned activist, said her road to becoming a labor activist wasn’t easy. “One day I sat my husband and children down and said to them, ‘All these years, I’ve lived my life for my family. I didn’t have a life of my own. I just want one year to live my own life. So let’s divide up the house work.’”

South Korean irregular workers on average are paid 54 percent of what their full-time counterparts make, and public school employees like Pak are no exception. Irregular workers are denied the annual salary increases that regular employees receive. Consequently, the wage gap between regular and irregular workers intensifies the longer they have been employed, according to the Korean Public Service and Transportation Workers Union.

In Seoul, where the education chief is progressive, the June strike that Pak helped organize has definitely paid off. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced on Aug. 2 a plan to phase in a set of policies to guarantee job security for irregular employees. They include wage increases, hiring subcontracted workers at schools as regular public service employees, and possibly expanding the collective bargaining table in future contract negotiations, to include all types of occupations that are part of the education support sector. 

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the national strike was the right of irregular public school employees to collectively bargain at the national level, directly with the Ministry of Education. Working conditions vary greatly from region to region due to the decentralized responses to the workers’ demands by the various city/provincial-level offices of education. Collective bargaining at the national level would unify working conditions across the country and eliminate the burden of workers at the local level to fight their battles alone.

Just one day after the June walk-out, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the country’s second-largest association of unions, held a nationwide strike calling for higher minimum wage. Female irregular workers in the education support sector turned out the largest force in KCTU’s social general strike (although KCTU’s leadership is still male-dominated).

Seong Jeong-rim, the head of the Seoul division of the National School Irregular Workers Union, says their fight is just beginning. “The most important demand of the ‘candlelight revolution’ that ousted previous President Park Geun-hye was systemic change, and the biggest systemic failure in South Korean society is class polarization,” she said.

Acute class polarization intensified after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and is the defining economic issue in South Korea today. Neoliberal policies from both the conservative and liberal administrations have eroded protections for workers, shrunk the country’s middle class, and benefited a handful of chaebols at the expense of an ever-growing pool of irregular workers. Women workers like Pak and Seong say they are determined to fight to eradicate precarious labor conditions in South Korea. It will be a long uphill battle. 

 

Cover image: Protesters cheer at the labor rally in Gwanghwamun on June 30. (Source: National School Irregular Workers Union)

This article was written by Hyun Lee, a staff writer at ZoominKorea, and edited by Korea Exposé. Read the long version here

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ZoominKorea is an online resource for information on and critical analysis of Korean issues. It is a project of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea.

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