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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Wed May 31 09:02:20 2000
Date: Tue, 30 May 2000 23:52:07 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: RIGHTS-SOUTH KOREA: Women First Out, Last Back into Jobs
Article: 97343
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Women First Out, Last Back into Jobs

By Ahn Mi-Young, IPS, 29 May 2000

SEOUL, May 29 (IPS)—Kim Hee-Ran, 35, is still out of a job after leaving a big South Korean financial institution in 1998. She joined the firm in 1989, fell in love with a colleague and married him four years later.

But she never thought that her company romance would lead to her being laid-off when the cash-strapped company shed staff in summer of 1998, as South Korea reeled from its worse economic crisis in decades.

In truth, women workers who had husbands working as colleagues in the same company were the first to go during the massive lay-offs in 1997 and 1998.

Among 756 co-worker couples at Kim’s firm, only four couples survived the string of job shed-offs. That meant that in case of the affected 752 couples, either wife or husband was laid off. Much of the price, however, was borne by the wife workers, who numbered in 687 lay-offs versus 65 husband lay-offs.

I would still like to scream why the company couples had to be the first to go, and why only a woman should again be the first to go, Kim says. But I would not do so, for I have my husband still working there like a hostage there.

At the time of the layoffs, the management of Kim’s firm virtually forced the affected women to tender a letter of consent and promised that they would be hired back when the time becomes good enough.

Also, some 300 of the laid-off 687 women accepted the company’s offer to be rehired as part-time independent workers under one-year contracts that pay them only 70 percent of what they used to receive.

Two years have passed since then, but most of these 300 women part-timers continue to be that, although many of them have also left the company for various reasons.

Complaints about such discrimination against women at work are only some of the ones that women’s NGOs like Women Link have received from women workers who—two years after the worst of the crisis and as South Korea is being praised as Asia’s fastest recovery—are struggling to get back into work.

Many economic statistics show that the South Korean economy is indeed enjoying a revived economy. For instance, the jobless rate has dropped to the pre-crisis level of 4 percent since October 1999, after hitting its high of 7 percent in early-1998.

Today, however, if two men workers are back to work, only one woman worker is back to her job. For instance, 140,954 male workers went back to their previous companies during October to December 1999, compared to only 72,567 women who did the same, according to the Ministry of Labour.

In November 1997, a electronic assembling company laid-off four men workers and 18 women on the condition that they rehired when the economy picks up. In August, 1999, all four men came back, but only one woman was asked to return.

The company spokesman said it was marriage that kept their former women workers from coming back, which in this society may be partly true. But it is also a well-known fact that a married woman is seldom welcomed back in this work culture.

In others words, the 1997 economic crisis turned the workplace into a cool and cruel place for woman workers having a hard time going back, says Lee Jong-Hee, who leads the counselling team at the NGO Women Labour Committee.

In the restructuring process post-crisis, she points out, two times more women workers were laid off than their male counterparts. Now, much fewer number of women are back to work than men, she adds.

Worse, since the crisis, many company managements have learned how to halve labour costs by switching to part-time workers.

As a result, the number of part-time workers under one-month to one-year contracts jumped to 4.3 million as of end-1999. This marks a sizable rise from 3.9 million during 1998, according to the Ministry of Labour.

It adds that the number of daily workers also increased from 1.89 million during 1997 to 2.5 million in 1999. Activists say most of these part-time workers are women.

The job market appears to be back to the pre-crisis level in terms of figures, says Kim Sung-Shik, researcher of LG Economic Research Institute. But in terms of quality, the job market has deteriorated to a significant degree. An even more serious problem is that the degraded quality won’t go away but will stay with us.

As of March, for instance, only 30 percent of the women workers were full-time regular staff on payroll compared to 61 percent for male workers.

Likewise, there is a serious gap between job-hunters and job- seekers. Things may be better to get a job for a woman who is young, smart, skilled or pretty at least, argues Choi Jin-Mi, a counselor at the Korea Women Labour Committee. But it is virtually impossible in most cases to be back to work for a woman who is married, aged, unskilled or plain-looking.

Still, activists say there some signs of good change in South Korea’s economy that is under restructuring.

It is encouraging the emergence of a new breed of competent woman managers moving up the managment ladder—these are those who know how to befriend customers, care about other people, and attend to details.

Thus, while there were only 117 venture companies a few years back managed by women CEOs among 4,400 venture companies in South Korea, today there are at least 1,000 women CEOs running them, says Women Link.

Likewise, Women Link said, in the 70s women used to be paid only 71 percent of what their male counterparts were paid but added that the gender wage gap has been diminishing continually.

However, it still remains tough for some 300,000 former co-eds that remain without jobs since they graduated from university in 1998 and 1999.

Each time I’ve managed to have an interview, they apparently prefer younger applicants than me, says a former co-ed who graduated with a sociology degree in February 1998.

So far, the labour ministry has been trying to pressure companies into hiring back the women workers they laid off. It has sent letters to 160 firms to encourage them to hire their women workers—and promised some 2 million won (1,770 U.S. dollars) for each former worker hired back.

The ministry also receives and handles claims from women workers who are forced to retire after marriage or due to age reasons.

There are two major reasons that force women to drop out of work, says a labour ministry official. One is to be in her mid-40s for simple manual work like hotel room-maids. The second is marriage or delivery of a baby.

Only 16 percent of surveyed former workers are back to work after they give birth or get married, explains Kim Young-Ok, a research fellow at the state think tank Korea Women’s Development Institute.

This is despite the fact that 72 percent of these surveyed 2,300 women used to be employed before marriage, she adds.

In February, the government promised to provide vocational training and hire 10,000 unemployed women who have to support their families, and offered them cheap loans of up to 50 million won (44,280 dollars) to start small businesses.