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Solidarity for Whom, by Whom? The marginalization of women inside the progressive sector

PICIS Newsletter, no. 79, 26 January 2001

(In the last edition of the PICIS Newsletter, the In-Depth Look started a four-part special on women workers, during and after the economic crisis. The first part was an introduction to the appalling situation that the women workers face brought on by the neo-liberal policies. In this edition, PICIS will bring out the controversial issue of sexism and discrimination within the progressive sector of Korea, haltering the way to true solidarity in the fight against neo-liberalism and globalization.)

The gender issue or the problem of women in progressive movements has always been a hot potato—women asking for recognition of the problem and men usually denying it. The call for recognition of the problem has either been criticized as a conspiracy by the bourgeoisie to jeopardize the movement or as a diversion from the true cause, and in milder cases, just not important enough to be dealt with. Perhaps in the West, this issue has been an age-long debate, dealt with in one way or another whatever the result may be, but in the case of the Korean progressive movement, the problem of gender inequality has only recently come out into the open. Women activists will not tolerate any longer, the silence and discrimination from those whom the women thought were different from the ‘outside’, from those whom they thought were their comrades fighting together for a better future. It is now time to ask and think seriously, about the solidarity that everyone takes for granted—is it solidarity for whom, by whom? Are women really included as equals in the struggle for liberation?

The Hyundai Motors struggle against the neo-liberal restructuring process is recorded in the workers’ history as one of the most militant struggles of the period, and also as one of the most severe cases of discrimination of women workers committed by the trade union. In 1998, the wave of restructuring knifed through Korea, as the only possible method of ‘overcoming’ the economic crisis. Hyundai Motors was no exception. In August of that year, the company and the trade union, after long debates on who will be the first ones to be laid-off, came to a conclusion that it will be the women workers in the canteen. Out of the 277 workers that were laid-off, 144 of them were women, all 144 of those working at the canteen. These women were in their 40’s and 50’s, many of them the sole breadwinner of their families, working for longer hours than they used to due to natural decrease in number of workers. What was so appalling however, was not merely the fact that women make up around 0.4% of the whole Hyundai Motors workforce yet they were more than half of those fired, but the fact that the union refused to do anything about it—in fact, they had used these women to ‘save the men’ and later boycotted the struggles of these women who fought for more almost 2 years to be reinstated. The trade union had taken over the management of the canteen, so the union argued that these women were not fired. The truth is, under the union management, the canteen can only last for a couple of years due to lack of finances and the calculation was that the canteen will be turned over to capital once again and the women workers will not be able to say anything. The women workers had to fight against the company and also the union, who have in fact, sold them off. The union refused to recognize, if not protect, these women’s rights and the status as laid-off workers. The union criticized the women as being selfish and turning the attention away from the ‘real’ struggle and committed violence to these women. The union even forced the women amidst their struggles to attend lectures on capitalist mode of management and services, just had the company had once done—the women workers were now employed by the union. The canteen workers were treated by the union just as they had been treated by the company, but felt even more betrayed since they had previously united with the union and workers during their struggles and fed them day and night.

One may think that the Hyundai Motors example merely shows the bureaucracy of major unions who have been sold over to their capitalist counterparts. But it also shows the deep and widespread discrimination against women in major unions, kept silent until now, but exploded into the open by the (unexpected) struggles of these women, who even put their lives on the line to fight for their basic rights.

It is not just the unions. Women activists in Korea have been going through the discrimination and degradation elsewhere, from grass-root organizations to major federations. The mentality that women’s place is at home and that women are not fit for ‘out-side’ work applies also to the progressive movement. In many organizations still, it is the women who have to balance their work between activism and the ‘housework’ of making meals, doing the dishes and serving coffee. Some unions even employ women secretaries to do work which the men think is too inferior to do themselves, such as taking calls, photocopying, serving coffee etc.. When it comes to organizing workers, it is really the men who are organized, because the women are not considered as ‘real’ workers who will fight to the end. Women will not be allowed to throw molotov cocktails during demonstrations on the basis that the men have to ‘protect the weaker sex’, and but then men would take all the credit because they are the ones who did the real fighting (militancy is considered equivalent to masculinity). Most women are excluded from decision-making, not due to the lack of number of women, but because of the mentality that women are too emotional and illogical to make any decisions. Women form the base of the hierarchial pyramid. In more severe cases, many women activists have left the movement because of the betrayal and the disappointment they feel when they were sexually assaulted and then silenced in the name of the ‘movement’, by those whom they thought were comrades, those whom they thought were indeed ‘progressive’. Sexual harrassment and abuse, in many cases, are justified as a ‘break’ and enjoyment from the hardships of political struggling. Some would even argue that harrassment is a method of consolidating comradeship between men and women. The saying ‘comrade by day, women by night’ says all. The aggressors in many cases are well-known trade unionists and top-level leaders.

Recently, the ‘100 Women’s Committee’ formed by women activists to deal with sexual violence within the progressive sector, publicized a list of male activists who had committed sexual violence and have gotten away with it. The list includes the vice-president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and other famous activists.

Perhaps it is asking too much for the progressive movement, to be as progressive with gender as they are with class, in a society where traditional confucianism based on sexism and ageism still rules the mind of all, whatever their political philosophy might be. Perhaps it is too much to ask for the change when the success of the Korean movement comes from the strict unity based on hierarchy and authoritarianism. But it is now vital to ask whether those victories were indeed victories, whether or not they were based on the sacrifice of women. Are women included in the program of social change, or do they exist as mere supporters only called in when their ‘services’ are needed?