우물 안 개구리


KTX female attendants – “contingent labour” fights back

Filed under: — noja @ 1:33 pm Print

There was a time in Korean labour movement history in the 1970s when it were the female workers who actually led the most militant part of the struggle. The reasons were obvious – while the wages were held generally low and grew on much lower rate than the economy as the whole (in the 1960s, the growth rate for economy were whopping 10%, but for real, inflation-adjusted wages in the manufacturing – modest 2,4% on the annualised basis), the female wages were always lower than the male ones, and military-like systemized bullying on the part of the male supervisors used to make factory life a miserable, constantly humiliating experience. Accordingly, some of the most moving struggles of the 1970s took place on the female-dominated textile factories – KyOngsOng Pangjik (1973) and Tongil Panjik (1978) strikes being the best known ones. In the latter case, the striking female workers were eventually assaulted by their male colleagues (?), beaten and showered with human excrements. Their response? On the Easter, 1978, they came to the public worship place on YOUido Square and succeeded in taking microphone for 5 minutes and shouting to the city and world – “우리는 똥을 먹고 살 수 없다!”. Of course, more beatings and arrest followed immediately, but the phrase ended becoming a tale-telling slogan of the female labour movement.

Now, I feel sometimes that the 1970s are returning, in a way. After 1997 crisis, females were first to be sacrificed on the altar of Washington consensus and “national interests” – put on contract (many of the contracts for tellers at the large malls, for example, are for 3 months or even 1 month), send to work on much worse conditions for a subcontractors, to which large part of the tasks was now “farmed out”, “re-employed” by some shadowy intermediary with proporationate part of the salary being withheld “for introduction”, and “flexibilized” in a million other methods, too diverse and creative to describe here. Now, 70% of Korea’s female workforce is “contingent” and “flexible”, on short-term contracts, subcontracted or supplied by “manpower agencies” – a world record of sorts. The women fought back, and the most protracted and bitter of all the struggles witnessed so far by the 2000s is the marathon strike by KTX (express train) female attendants – now well over 500 days and showing so far no signes of coming to an end. Below is the text of the appeal for their sake, prepared in its English form by a group of Korean female professors and sent to me by Prof. Na YungyOng (Culture Studies, Yonsei University):


On March 1, 2006, approximately four hundred women who work as train attendants (similar to flight attendants) on the KTX “bullet train” began a strike to demand the end of discriminatory and unjust outsourcing practices of the Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL). Despite KORAIL’s promise that workers hired under short-term contracts via an external company would be granted permanent status as direct employees of KORAIL after one year, the KTX Crew Workers Branch Union’s demands for direct and permanent employment have yet to be met.

To date, the KTX Crew Workers’ Branch Union’s struggle is the longest and most bitterly waged fight by women workers in the history of Korea. For over 500 days, women who work as train attendants on the KTX bullet trains have held public rallies and marches, occupied buildings, lectured in classrooms, and conducted outreach on the streets and at train stations throughout the country. KORAIL’s continued refusal to meet the union’s demands for gender equality, safe working conditions and secure employment have led union leaders to engage in desperate measures to expose the unjust and unequal conditions under which they are forced to work. After exhausting every tactic, 31 union members began a hunger strike on July 2, 2007. As the hunger strike surpasses its 14th day, many union members have been rushed to the hospital..

Despite KTX’s sleek and high-tech image as the fifth fastest “bullet train” in the world, it is the site of blatant sexism and labor abuse. Of those train attendants who are irregularly employed under outsourcing agreements, the majority are women. In contrast, their male counterparts who perform comparable duties are directly employed by KORAIL as “team leaders.” Simply by being women, KTX train attendants are subject to lower wages, harsher working conditions, and heightened job insecurity. In addition, women workers face the perpetual threat of dismissal if they speak out against unfair conditions and sexual harassment in the workplace.

According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, KORAIL’s treatment of KTX female train attendants is a clear example of gender discrimination and a basic violation of human rights. The National Human Rights Commission has strongly recommended that striking KTX women workers be granted fair and just conditions of employment. The South Korean Minister of Labor, the legal community, various media outlets, 500 university professors, 300 members of the literary community and a wide cross section of NGOs including the Korea Women’s Association United, Lawyers for Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Korea Women Workers Association United, and the People’s Coalition for Media Reform have also called upon KORAIL to reinstate the striking workers as directly hired employees, not as contingent workers contracted through a third party. However, KORAIL continues to disregard this overwhelming public outcry.

KORAIL, the nation’s largest public enterprise and employer of over 30,000 people, refuses to abide by the most basic and fundamental standards of fairness and equality. KORAIL’s actions violate South Korean laws that prohibit all forms of discrimination, as well as international standards established by the ILO to protect the rights of workers. KORAIL is also failing to comply with the international standards that the company itself pledged to uphold when it joined the UN Global Compact in May 2007.

KORAIL’s blatant violation of the basic principles of democracy and human rights deserve international criticism. KORAIL’s actions are indicative not only of the pervasive inequality facing contingent workers in South Korea, but also of systemic gender discrimination in South Korea. We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the KTX Crew Workers in its brave fight for justice. We respectfully request your signature on this petition letter in support of the KTX women workers. This letter will be sent to President Roh Moo-hyun and UN Secretariat General Ban Ki-moon, as well as to the CEO of KORAIL.”

The letter of the appeal is enclosed below. Dear friends, if you think that the cause of the KTX workers is worthy, I beg you to sign it and return with you sign to ktxworkers@gmail.com (please, indicate your position and affiliation). More info in Korean is available at: http://ktxworkers.blogsome.com. This thing is URGENT, since only the Almighty knows how long the hunger strikers will be physically able to hold on.


Sell yourself

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:09 am Print

“Selling yourself” – one of those phrases we use in a somewhat metaphorical sense, but which nonetheless has a more literal meaning than we probably give it credit. In modern capitalist society, where pretty much anything can be commodified, we regularly sell our labour to others. To put this another way, we alienate part of ourselves in order to get the cash that we need to sustain ourselves. But in precapitalist societies such as Chosŏn, it was possible not just to sell part of oneself on a temporary basis but to sell oneself whole, to alienate one’s own body in perpetuity.

I recently came across some information about the Chosŏn practice of ‘self sale’ (chamae 自賣) in volume 3 of the brilliant Chosŏn sidae saenghwalsa (History of everyday life in the Chosŏn dynasty) series, in the section on ‘famine foods’ (구황식품, 굶주림을 해결하라, pp. 196-217):

During repeated famine years, when people’s livelihoods became uncertain, some starving peasants sold themselves and their wives and children as slaves in order to guarantee at least some level of subsistence. The document created for this purpose was called a chamae mun’gi (contract of self-sale).

Here is an example of such a document, dating from 1815, from Andong in Kyŏngsang Province:

Contract of self-sale
(Source: Donga Ilbo).

Interestingly, there is still a word used in everyday Korean which is clearly related to this practice and the more general Chosŏn practice of buying and selling slaves as commodities: momkap (몸값), literally ‘body-price’. Although nowadays it is used to mean the price of a prostitute or the cost of a ransom.

Actually, a project I’m currently working on has led me to think quite a bit about the question of slavery in Korean history. For anyone who is interested in a short and clear introduction to this topic, and the quite fierce debates that surround it, I would highly recommend reading the late James Palais’ essay ‘Slave society’ in the small booklet published in 1998 by Yonsei University under the title Views on Korean Social History. I seem to recall that there are one or two people in the US working on the subject of slavery in Chosŏn history for their PhD research, but I can’t remember who they are. Perhaps someone can enlighten me… And while I’m asking for enlightenment, perhaps our fellow mainland and archipelagan froggers would know whether similar practices of ‘self-sale’ can be found in Chinese and Japanese history.



Filed under: — Owen @ 1:34 pm Print

Just a nugget of information I thought I might throw out to our readers, all comments or reflections are welcome:

It seems that unskilled wage labourers in late Chosŏn Seoul were paid a real wage at a similar level to their contemporaries in London and Amsterdam (about 140-160kg of rice per month). The workers of Paris, Vienna and Istanbul, by contrast, were remunerated at about half of that level. Of course, if this (highly approximate) comparison of wages is at all accurate, the obvious question is why this was the case. Perhaps a shortage of labour in Chosŏn Seoul? Or a result of the fact that most labourers were employed by the state, where paternalistic, Confucian ideas of moral economy prevented it from squeezing workers too much?

This information comes from an article in the collection edited by Lee Young-hoon: 수량경제사로 다시 본 조선후기 [Re-examining Late Chosŏn through Quantitive Economic History]. The article, entitled 서울의 숙련 및 미수련 노동자의 임금, 1600-1909 [Wages of skilled and unskilled labourers in Seoul, 1600-1909], is by Pak I-t’aek. You can find the note on comparative wages on page 85.

Actually, this book as a whole is one that I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone who is interested in Korean economic history (although I suppose that you have to be the sort of historian – like me – who gets more excited by seeing lots of charts and tables than by reading about battles or revolutions). When it came out in autumn 2004 it seems to have generated quite a bit of interest in the Korean press. One article from Yonhap highlighted the fact that the book reveals that the Korean peninsula was already heavily deforested in the nineteenth century (“한반도 산림은 이미 19세기에 벌거숭이”). An interview with Lee Young-hoon in Chosun Ilbo, on the other hand, focused on his opinion that by the nineteenth century the Chosŏn dynasty was collapsing of its own accord (“19세기 朝鮮은 체력 다해 스스로 무너졌다”). All this attention probably shows just how important this book is to Korean historiography, but I think it’s just the beginning of a new wave of history writing of this sort.

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