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Women Workers and the Fight to Eradicate Precarious Labor in South Korea

By Hyun Lee | September 5, 2017

Irregular women workers—part-time and/or short-term contract workers without job security or benefits—are emerging as the new face of organized labor in South Korea. On June 29, ahead of a nationwide strike called by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) for an increase in the national minimum wage, tens of thousands of contract workers at public schools walked off their jobs. They are mostly women who work as caregivers, cleaners, and cafeteria staff, and they demand regular employment (i.e., full-time with job security and benefits) as well as an increase in wages. Workers in over three thousand public schools—27 percent of public schools nationwide—participated in the walk-out, forcing many schools to cut classes short, according to the South Korean Ministry of Education.

KCTU is known for its militant actions by predominantly male industrial unions like the Korean Metal Workers Union, and it’s rare to see women at the fore of its mass strikes. But 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. Once overlooked by government institutions as well as organized labor, this growing sector of irregular and largely women workers has become an important force in the country’s economy.

Forty-three percent of all public school employees are irregular workers, according to the National School Irregular Workers Union, which includes cafeteria and administrative staff, librarians, computer room assistants, caregivers, as well as special education teachers and counselors. The union estimates the total number of irregular public school employees at approximately 400,000—including 141,965 education support staff, 153,015 teachers, 27,266 dispatch workers, and 42,033 temporary/substitute teachers.

Sweating for Half the Pay

“I stand next to a hot grill and a boiling pot all day,” wrote an anonymous cafeteria worker on the union’s public bulletin board, which has emerged as an archive of worker testimonies about the job-related hardships they endure. “I become soaked with sweat down to my underwear. We don’t even have time to get a drink of water. 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.”

“My one wish is to work in a relaxed atmosphere where I can take a leisurely lunch,” someone else wrote, “They say we work so that we can eat, but in the cafeteria, we eat so that we can work. Heartburn and indigestion from eating too quickly are nothing; they happen all the time.”

“We’re not asking for pity,” wrote another, “What we are saying is give us some relief by reducing the intensity of labor. At least give us half the wages of civil servants. We work more than they do, but our wages aren’t even half of theirs….”

South Korean irregular workers on average are paid 54 percent of what their full-time counterparts make, and public school employees 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 Education Workers Solidarity Division of the Korean Public Service and Transportation Workers Union (KPTU Ed-sol). In the case of school nutritionists and librarians, the starting salary of irregular workers is 70.5% of that of regular workers, but after ten years of employment, their salary is only 57.1% of that of regular workers, and after twenty years, only 45.6%. Irregular workers in public schools are also denied year-end bonuses, as well as paid holidays and vacations, to which regular workers are entitled.

The workers who led the strike in June say they are fighting for the rights of all working women, but not all women were sympathetic to their cause. National Assemblywoman Lee Eon-ju of the centrist People’s Party referred to the striking women as “mad bitches” in a conversation with a news reporter and said, “They are just middle-aged neighborhood women who make rice. It’s no big thing. Why do they need to be regular workers?” Two striking workers, who confronted Lee at the National Assembly building, accused her of giving a “fake apology after making reckless remarks” and treating them “like dogs and pigs.”

Lee was forced to issue a public apology the next day, but her comments reflect a widespread belief that is at the root of subpar working conditions for women in South Korea. The patriarchal belief 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 also explains why South Korea has the biggest gender pay gap of all OECD nations.

Fighting for Gender and Class Equality

Defying such deeply-held societal views to establish a union of irregular and women workers was no easy feat, according to Pak Geum-ja, a cafeteria worker turned labor organizer. “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 in the evenings,” she said.

Pak founded the National School Irregular Workers Union in 2010. As a cafeteria worker, Pak was prohibited from using her cell phone while on the job and with no access to a fax machine, thus reaching out to workers in other schools required a double-agent like prowess on her part. “I had to hide in the storage closet to make phone calls,” she explained. “A lot of our communication was via fax, but getting access to the school fax machine was impossible. I had to rely on my husband, who worked in the school admissions office. I would tell him when and to where to send the fax. To make sure that supervisors at the receiving end wouldn’t see it, I would call the workers in advance and instruct them to wait by the fax machine at the exact time.”

To devote herself to organizing, Pak had to first work out an understanding with her family: “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.’” Without support from her family, she said, it would have been impossible to organize the union.

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 1970s was achieved on the backs of young women who toiled in export industrial zones that produced textiles, garments, electronics, and chemicals. In their opposition to Park Chung-hee’s Yushin system and in their assertion of their right to organize democratic labor unions, the Chunggye Pibok Garment Makers Union, which represented 20,000 women at Seoul’s Peace Market, and the women of Dongil Textile defied humiliation and intimidation from the police and company-hired goons. Their fight inspired the famous 1985 strike of tens of thousands of women workers at the Kurodong Industrial Estate in solidarity with the striking workers of Daewoo Apparel—which, in turn, led the way for the mass democratic labor uprising that followed two years later. 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.

Striking women workers at Dongil Textile in 1978

Striking factory workers in 1970—“Too hungry to live. Give us food.”

Striking women at Kurodong Industrial Estate in 1985

Although proud of the union’s accomplishment, Pak carries guilt for not having been around for her family. At the height of the union organizing drive, she could only go home every two or three weeks. She gets upset when she talks about her daughter, who boiled instant noodles for dinner on the eve of her college entrance exam because she wasn’t home. “It’s hard trying to build a union while raising children as housewives,” she said, “But this is how we all did it.”

Pak and her colleagues organized 1,700 irregular public school workers in just forty days 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.

Striking for a Better Future

The strike by 20,000 school workers in June 2017 was a coordinated action by three different unions that organize irregular workers in the public schools—the Education Workers Solidarity Division of the Korean Public Service and Transportation Workers Union (KPTU EdSol), the National School Irregular Workers Union of the Korean Confederation of Service Workers’ Unions, and the Korean Women’s Trade Union. Regularization of their employment status—i.e., direct employment by the Ministry of Education as opposed to subcontractors—as well as a collective bargaining agreement that guarantees a raise in wages and seniority allowance topped their list of demands.

Striking irregular public school employees in 2015

While South Korea’s corporate media denounced the walk-out for forcing students to go without lunch for a day, many students and parents applauded the striking workers. A junior high school student in Incheon said in a local TV interview on the day of the strike, “I support them. It’s wrong to discriminate against irregular workers, who perform the same work as regular workers.” The cafeteria in her school was adorned with hand-written posters made by students and parents in support of the strike. “Your fight is also for our children’s future,” read one. “Don’t worry about us! Safe travels and stay cool in the heat,” read another.

In Seoul, where the education chief is progressive, the strike has definitely paid off. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education announced on August 2 a plan to phase in a set of policies to guarantee job security for and end discrimination against irregular school employees. According to its policy guideline, subcontracted workers, including cooks, security guards, janitors, and call center operators, will be hired directly by the Office of Education and become regular public service employees. Those who work 40 hours or more per week will see their hourly wages increase by 10,000 won (USD 8.85) starting next year. Those who work less than 40 hours will also see their hourly wages increase from average 8,400 won (USD 7.44) to 10,000 won (USD 8.85)—an increase of 24.4%. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education says it will also consider ways to expand the collective bargaining table to include all fifty-some different types of occupations that are part of the education support sector for future contract negotiations.

Collective Bargaining at the National Level

Workers in other regions are not so fortunate. Due to the decentralized responses to the workers’ demands by the various city/province level offices of education, working conditions vary greatly from region to region.

Daycare workers at elementary schools in Gangwon Province, for example, are still fighting. They rallied outside the provincial education office on August 10 to demand an increase in their paid work hours to reflect the increase in workload. “The school system is constantly introducing new programs that require us to perform more administrative duties on top of caregiving, but we  are only paid to work five hours a day,” said Jeong Hyeon-mi, the chief of the Gangwon division of the National School Irregular Workers Union, “We have to get to work earlier and leave later to perform all our tasks, but most of us are denied overtime pay.”

The workers demand an eight-hour paid work day, but the Gangwon Province Office of Education has so far brushed them off. Buoyed by the momentum of the national strike in June, the caregivers in Gangwon Province are gearing up for a local strike next month.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the national strike in June was the right of irregular public school employees to collectively bargain at the national level directly with the Ministry of Education. If effectively carried out, this would unify working conditions across the country and eliminate the burden of workers at the local level, like the caregivers in Gangwon Province, to fight their battles alone.

The Ministry of Education and the consortium of irregular public school workers unions held their first negotiation on August 18. The workers presented their basic demands, which include a seniority allowance (a salary increase of 50,000 won (USD 44.31) each year after two years of employment) and a regular bonus. The parties agreed to hold a series of talks with the goal of completing the negotiations by late September.

Fighting for Systemic Change and Eradication of Precarious Labor

Irregular workers in the education support sector turned out the largest force in KCTU’s social general strike for a higher minimum wage on June 30. “We support the KCTU’s main demands—elimination of precarious labor and raising the minimum wage to 10,000 won (USD 8.85),” said a spokesperson for KPTU Ed-Sol.

Soon after his election, President Moon Jae-in pledged to eliminate precarious labor and introduced a road map to “usher in an era of zero irregular work in the public sector.” KPTU Ed-sol says its primary concern is to make sure that the predominantly-women and historically marginalized sector of education support workers are no longer excluded from national policies aimed at improving labor conditions.

Seong Jeong-rim, the head of the Seoul division of the National School Irregular Workers Union, agrees. The task of the “candlelight revolution” that brought together millions last year to oust previous President Park Geun-hye is incomplete, she said: “The most important demand of the ‘candlelight revolution’ was systemic change, and the biggest systemic failure in South Korean society is class polarization. Since the financial crisis of 1997 and subsequent structural changes imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the number of irregular workers has continuously increased and the wage gap between regular and irregular workers has grown.”

Seong says her union’s plan to fight for broader systemic change includes participating in the political arena and supporting the formation of a new progressive party. “We share the values and goals of the New People’s Party,” she said, referring to left/progressive forces that are coming back together for the first time since the dissolution of the radical Unified Progressive Party in 2014 by the former Park Geun-hye administration. The party-in-formation has said its top priorities are the eradication of precarious labor, peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula, and the creation of a unified progressive front. It will formally launch as the New People’s Party in early September, then join forces with other progressive parties to re-launch with a new name in early October.

Seong says her union plans to work closely with the new party to participate directly in local elections that will take place across the country next year and elect candidates who stand on the side of women, irregular workers and other historically-marginalized people. “Our members want to be part of creating systemic change,” she said. Women irregular workers promise to be a force to be reckoned with in the growing fight to eradicate precarious labor in South Korea.

Hyun Lee is a Korea Policy Institute Associate, a member the Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific, and works with Zoom in Korea, a news and analysis blog on Korea.


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