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Female union leaders flex their muscles

By Prangtip Daorueng, Asia Times, 22 September 1999

SEOUL—Hired when convenient and then demoted or thrown out of work in hard times, South Korea’s women workers have had enough of being shoved aside in this newly industrialized economy.

To give female laborers more leverage, a group of women formed the country’s first women’s union in August—and have had their hands full, since female employees are among the hardest hit by South Korea’s economic woes. Although Korean economic growth has increased during the past decade, the working conditions for women have been bad. It is now getting worse as the country is facing financial crisis, said Choi Sang-rim, president of the newly-founded Korean Women Trade Union (WTU).

Women workers, who make up 40 percent of the overall Korean laborers, need to have a union of their own so that they can have a say in society, she explained, saying the problems women workers face must be among the priorities of the labor movement.

Women workers, the first to be laid off when the Asian crisis struck in late 1997, find they are still lagging behind despite signs of recovery in South Korea, whose GDP growth is expected to reach 8 percent in 1999 from last year’s 5.8 percent contraction.

Now that the worst of the crisis has passed, the majority of women workers are paid only about 57 percent of men’s salary, Choi explains. Many women employees have lost their permanent jobs. One study shows that 70 percent of the overall women workers in South Korea hold temporary jobs in small work places with less five employees.

But while the number of temporary workers has rapidly increased, there is no mechanism to voice women employees’ demands or push their interests. Choi says the WTU will service these needs. A women’s trade union is needed to pull together women workers from different working conditions and identify their problems to the society.

She says the Women’s Trade Union aims to be a forum for all women workers, including who have lost their jobs and with that, their involvement in union activities. This is significant since Korean law bars the unemployed from joining a union.

The WTU also groups not just full-time workers, but temporary ones as well. As Korean labor unions are mostly company-based, when women lose their jobs or work in a temporary job it means they have to leave their union activities. This has weakened women workers’ movement for years, Choi pointed out. Our trade union will help fill this gap because any female workers can join.

Choi says that research and public hearings involving unorganized women prior to the union’s establishment helped us to have a clear picture of what we want to do.

Research helped bring out concerns by women workers that companies and employers should look into issues like child care to improve security and productivity. While an issue like child care centers, which should be an issue for both women and men workers, is always left behind in labor negotiations, this research shows that there is a strong demand for it. Otherwise workers cannot make a living properly, she added.

The Asian crisis is only the latest in changing labor trends—not all encouraging—that have affected South Korean women workers in recent decades. The shift of industries in South Korea from unskilled ones such as textile or shoe industries in the sixties and seventies, to heavy industries such as car manufacturing in the eighties and nineties, has driven thousands of unskilled women workers out of their jobs.

In the early stage of Korea’s industrialization, which started with low-skilled industries, thousands of unskilled young and single women workers were pulled out from countryside to work in factories, said Rhie Chol-soon, chairperson of Korean Women Workers Association United, a Seoul-based NGO. But after two decades of hard work, a huge number of female workers lost their jobs because industries changed and many foreign and Korean investors moved their base to other cheaper labor countries in Southeast Asia.

The evidence of this change is clear in Pusan, Korean’s biggest port city in the south. A huge condominium site located along the highway was once a foreign-invested shoe factory with more than 20,000 workers, mostly women. The factory has since moved to Indonesia, where cheaper labor can be found.

About 80 percent of workers in nearly 1,000 shoe factories in Pusan are women, said Som Jung-eem, vice president of the Pusan women worker training center. In the mid-1990s, many of them lost their jobs because of factory moves. The crisis has made it even worse because more were dismissed.

Women working in other industries also bore the brunt of these market-driven changes. According to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of two largest unions in South Korea, women are the first group of workers laid off after any crisis.

But the effects of the 1997 slowdown were made more painful by the parliament’s passage of the so-called Dispatch Law, which allowed firms to get rid of workers legally after the crisis. Again, women’s jobs were the first to be shed using the law, whose passage the government said would make South Korea more competitive and would remove a long-time complaint of foreign investors who said job security laws went against efficiency.

While several small-sized companies went bankrupt, the medium-sized companies with no unions just dismissed workers—and the first group to be dismissed is always women, said Lee Hye-soon, deputy director of Korean Confederation of Trade Unions’s women workers’ unit. Even in big companies that have unions, women are always suggested to take voluntary retirement as a part of companies’ financial restructuring after the crisis.

She says the most vulnerable women workers are those who have been working for several years and have higher salaries than the others. Then companies will hire younger and cheaper workers, Lee added.

South Korea’s labor movement is often perceived as strong, a view encouraged by images of organized and militant laborers marching and protesting in unison. But though very powerful in the past, the movement has actually been weakening during the past decade. In 1987, total membership in South Korean trade unions was 1.93 million. It fell to 1.61 million in 1995 and 1.59 million in late 1996.

Women’s role has also declined in the union movement from the 1960s and 1970s. Choi Sang-rim estimates that women’s participation in trade unions is only at 20 percent. She says WTU will take up the banner for women in part-time or temporary work, or those without jobs. Said Choi: This group of workers is the biggest group of women workers and they are in the worst situation.

(Inter Press Service)