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[Lee Kyong-hee] The plight of seamstresses, bakers and migrant farm workers

May 26, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald
“Sewing Sisters,” a full-length documentary released this year, transports viewers to Seoul Peace Market in the 1970s. It unmasks the fate of garment workers galvanized by a suicide-protest against their harsh working conditions. And, when layered over what we see today, it illuminates how much has not changed, despite the new president’s claim that structural gender inequality no longer exists in this country.

Chun Tae-il was one of thousands of workers in a hive of sweatshops at the downtown clothing market. Most were aged 15 to 25 with little or no education. On Nov. 13, 1970, the 22-year-old tailor shouted, “We are not machines! Guarantee the three basic labor rights!” and set himself ablaze.

The self-immolation gave birth to the Cheonggye Garment Workers’ Union a fortnight later, planting the seeds of the Korean labor movement. A handful of the activist’s co-workers and his mother, Lee So-sun, led the movement. Night classes for the young garment workers also opened, organized by college students who were shocked and embarrassed by Chun’s protest.

The main voices of the documentary are three female garment workers of that time. Now in their 60s to early 70s, they recall how Chun’s sacrifice opened their eyes to their rights -- how they were reborn as self-confident workers to fight together against oppression, only to be scattered and be forgotten. The night class sessions became their refuge to learn and enjoy activities.

With their workdays extending up to 16 hours, simply attending the classes was a feat. “I just wished I could finish my work by 8 o’clock so that I could go to the classes,” says Lim Mi-kyung, one of the film’s three main voices. “I couldn’t put into words how happy I was there. So, I ran to listen even to the last 10 minutes or 20 minutes before going home.” Lim began working as a sewing assistant at 14, shortly after finishing elementary school.

“One day in March 1975, I found a leaflet delivered to my factory. It advertised the union’s free middle school courses. To me, it was a sheer surprise,” recalls Shin Soon-ae. “I couldn’t even tell a labor union from a labor office back then. Anyway, I went after work right on the day and found what the leaflet said was true.”

Shin still remembers how thrilled she felt opening a bank account, and learning to write numbers in Chinese characters. At the time, banks required transaction amounts to be handwritten in Chinese script only.

“On that day, I deposited 125 won (9.9 cents) for the first time in my life,” she says. That meant she no longer needed to carry her piggy bank. An even greater joy came from the realization that she recovered her name. “I wrote down my name for the first time in many years. At the factory, they always called me by number.”

In spring 1966, at age 13, Shin began working as a sewing assistant for 700 won per month. With her father chronically sick and her three elder brothers unqualified for work, she was her family’s primary breadwinner.

The union faced oppression from its first day to its last, in January 1981. Exports of garments and wigs, which relied on cheap labor, helped shape the Korean economy at the fledgling stage of industrialization. In their relentless drive for growth, the military-laden governments of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan brutally suppressed any labor movement under the pretext that it was instigated by communists.

The union’s night school was forced to close in September 1977, amid desperate protest from its attendees. Some of them were sentenced to prison, including the documentary film’s three main personalities.

They were branded “commies” and blacklisted for surveillance, which effectively deprived them of work opportunities. During police interrogations, they suffered abusive language and sexual harassment. It was most likely that young female factory workers suffered more humiliation than male college protesters, who appeared in international news photographs and film footage.

“Depending on gender, you were assessed differently even for the punishments you got,” wrote Shin Soon-ae in her 2014 memoir, “Life of a 13-Year-Old Factory Girl.” She explained: “When a woman activist went to jail, it was considered a slight personal inconvenience that she brought upon herself, but an imprisoned male activist drew more sympathy for causing a disaster for his family. The fact is that most female labor activists of the 1970s were supporting their families.”

Some 80 percent of garment workers were young women and girls. Many of those young seamstresses of the 1970s and ‘80s are still toiling late into the night, buttressing K-fashion. Chun Tae-il’s slogan, “Respect the Labor Standards Act,” still has a long way to fully materialize.

Today, more than 50 years since Chun’s suicide, workers at a top bakery franchise are taking turns staging a public hunger strike. Their union leader, Lim Jong-rin, ended her 53-day hunger protest last week.

Long work hours, low wages, few days off and sexual harassment -- the grievances are all too familiar. One noticeable difference is a demand for maternity protection (some 70 percent of baking technicians are women). “We are not asking for extra benefits; we’re asking the company to put into action the provisions of the Labor Standards Act,” Lim said.

News reports about the travail of Southeast Asian female workers at hot pepper or perilla leaf farms suggest racial prejudice being another dimension of abuse endured by low-income women.

During his election campaign, President Yoon Suk-yeol asserted that “gender-based, systemic and structural discrimination no longer exists in Korea.” He declared the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family a doomed agency which has “completed its historic mission.”

I cannot but ask whether Yoon’s judgment is blinded by a tiny sliver of highly privileged women around him. Now, as president, he must be more enlightened and sensitive to serve the broader public, especially those at the lower strata of society. That’s what governance is all about.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.