Salt Flowers: Glimpses of South Korea’s Labour Landscape

by

Park Jin-hee 00

Sweat stains on an old pair of overalls, or sweat stains on a fine shirt. South Koreans call them both “salt flowers”: beautiful traces of hard labour. It is a symbol of labour’s immeasurable value, beyond the understanding of those who never work and sweat. Calling a sweat stain a salt flower is the highest compliment we can offer to everyone who works to better this world. Farmers. Labourers. Office workers.

I believe in that ancient truth: The world belongs to those who work. That is why my team of photographers are working on a project to document salt flowers, because we celebrate the nobility of honest sweat.

It’s easy to forget that a car is made up of numerous mechanical parts. Operation is impossible if just one part develops a problem. Each and every part is important. And assembling myriad parts into a single car is made possible by human beings — people who perform labour.

Even in everyday life, parts and their sum, a minority and a majority, must communicate with each other. They must co-exist.

We seek to create a world in which dreams of the majority can become the whole reality. We eschew a world in which only a minority — a few parts — can succeed.

That majority is made up of workers, people who provide labour in return for earnings according to terms of employment contracts. A worker must have the freedom to choose the party to whom he or she will provide labour. There cannot be any oppression suffered in the hands of the capitalist employer.

South Korea’s constitution guarantees three labour rights for workers: the right to independent association, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to collective action. But life is not always easy for workers, and their salt flowers are all too often forgotten, out of plain view.

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Land is the source of life for farmers. For shipyard workers, it’s iron.

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Flames are going out at workplaces in the name of recession. Workplaces, too, are disappearing. But workers did not create recession.

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Humans made machines. But machines are robbing humans of jobs.

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If you think you can support your family on an annual salary of 14 million KRW (12,461 USD), go ahead and try.

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It’s not machines that sustain trains; it’s workers.

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The Ford conveyor system brought Mr. CEO efficiency and money. But workers tremble in fear of not being able to keep up with the belt.

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To tackle never-ending waves of work, one can only look straight ahead. But I am not a racehorse.

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Finishing is important in all work. The ability of a worker to squeeze into a space too narrow for machines and finish the process with paint is awe-inspiring.

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Words cannot express the intensity of labour a shipyard worker must perform at great risk to his or her life.

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It’s now too common in this world for humans to be pushed aside by the machines that they made.

This is the first installment of the multimedia project titled Salt Flowers by photographer Park Jin-hee and his team. It is currently being serialized on Daum in Korean.

Park Jin-hee previously served as a staff photographer at the Seoul bureau of Xinhua News Agency. He sits on the editorial board of the Korean Metal Workers' Union as a photo specialist.

  • Chris Kim

    sad reality of a 3D job worker in Korea, Government does nothing to change it. We need more journalism like this.

  • David P

    Great photojournalism. Reminds me of E.O Hoppe’s “The German Work.” But not sure if the simplistic and neo-Marxist sermonizing about the nobility of the worker is really necessary. Labor is necessary but so is capital. The steel mills and shipyards of Korea could not have been built without massive investment in machines and the infusion of capital and know-how. A worker only has to worry about showing up to work, doing his or her task and getting paid. The owner who hires the worker has to worry about creating the product, finding markets for it and selling it, and paying the workers. Failure can mean loss of the entire enterprise and massive debts.