Korean Women Workers situation and Globalization
kwwa  2002-10-28 14:24:18, 조회 : 415

Korean Women Workers Situation and Globalization

                                                          by Maria  Rhie

In the past two decades, most Asian countries have adopted an export-led development policy aiming at bringing in foreign investments by producing goods for export to the developed countries.  This economic policy was characterized by the establishment of Free Trade Zone or Export Processing Zones where special incentives were given to investors, specially multinational corporations.  FTZ/EPZ's basically mean that a country opens its doors to foreign investors directly for the setting-up of MNC subsidiaries, with very little restrictions. The most distinctive characteristic of FTZs is that they are exempted from the customs duties and other controls normally imposed on imports into and exports from the principal custom territory.
It is also interesting to note that the majority of labor force employed in FTZ/EPZ in Asian countries are women.

The globalisation process has been accelerated because the miracle economies of so called NICs countries have given rise to an Asian model of development.  Under these positive images from the late 1980s on the NIC have been over whelmed in Asian setting.  The growth of NICs had first been fuelled by EPZs in their own countries.  NIC countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong had established their own EPZs in late sixties and early 70s.

In recent years, many TNCs and other enterprises in East Asian countries have transferred some part of their capital to other Asian countries where cheap labor is available and where labor control is still very strong.  This has taken place mainly in labor-intensive small to medium-sized industries.

Situation of Women's Employment

  The percentage of women workers occupying permanent posts in the enterprises with more than ten employees decreased 9%, from 38% up 1981 to 29% in 1994.  In particular, women workers of manufacturing posts in the larger companies decreased significantly.   The restructuring of industries is mainly responsibles for such a prominent decrease.  In addition only 5.8% of women workers work in companies  with more than three hundred employees while 62.7% of women workers work in the enterprises with less than four employees.   This is very significant because workers in the work place with less than four employees are not protected by the labor standards act or by the other social security systems such as the minimal wage act, social pension, health care system, and employment insurance system.  Of the distribution of women workers among jobs women's participation in professional/technical or administration/management is very small with a mere 9.6% while the majority of women workers are concentrated in labor intensive industries with 33.4% in manufacturing, 17.5% in sales, and 14.4% in clerical work.
The wages of the industrial women workers in Korea is not only comparatively lower than women employed in other jobs, they are also paid lower  than their male counterparts in the same industries.  In Korea, it was found that women factory workers usually receive only 56.7% of the salary of men workers.


  In recent year, plant closures are happening in Korea which management use a way to prevent workers from organizing and also as a way to gain access to cheap labor.   Companies may move their plants to the rural areas in the same country or simply move out of the country overseas.
Job loss is common for Korea due to company shutdowns or relocations of production. For those women experiencing company shutdowns, the impacts are mass lay off's and unpaid compensation.
Since 1986 the structural adjustment programs which the government has been undertaking, especially since the late 1980s when the Korea labor conflicts were at their height, have become increasingly serious. Declining industries (textiles, clothing, shoes) are relocated abroad, while growing industries (steel, petrochemicals, electricity, electronics, automobiles, shipbuilding, machinery) are given many incentives to develop.  As women workers have always concentrated in labor intensive jobs,  jobs lost under industrial restructuring process are usually  women's jobs.
Unemployment is appearing mostly in light industries, where women workers are concentrated in the form of layoffs and dismissals.  The most major causes of these layoffs and dismissals are the withdrawal of foreign capital  into ventures and they transfer abroad to other countries, the temporary suspension and permanent closures of small to medium sized firms and the systematization of sub-contracting.  In Pusan where shoe industry sated in the five years period from 1990 to 1994, there were 217 companies that declared bankruptcy and the closure of 768 firms in the pusan region.  And the number of shoe industry workers which had been 164,000 at the beginning of 1988 decreased to 31,395 in 1993.( from 1989 to 1991 due to the suspensions of operations or shut-downs of shoe factories in Pusan city which employed mostly women, about 20,000 workers have become unemployed).  And Seoul industry case; the Kuro Export-processing complex in Seoul, there was a reduction of personnel from 74,466 in 1987 to 43,357 in 1995( in the case of the Seoul Export Corporation, from 1987 to 1990, 21.1% of the employees were dismissed) and in the Masan Free Export zone, from 1987 to 1992, 47% of the employees were dismissed. These workers who were dismissed received no training to obtain other employment or nay other support to guarantee their livlihood.  The women workers who were unemployed were pushed into the service industries or working as housekeepers.

Deterioration of the status of the women worker

In facing the industrial restructuring in 1980s and 1990s, we can see that the status of women workers in Korea is further deteriorated.  In Korea, though subcontracting production has been existed for a long time, it has expanded drastically in the 1980s and 1990s and is becoming a more institutionalized form of production in the garment and electronics industries.  Subcontracting workers undergo a cut in wages, longer  hours, harsh working conditions, and less opportunities for labor organizing. According to ILO statistics, women workers in Korea registered the longest working hours in the world, namely, 230.42 hours a month. In addition to long hours and low pay women workers in Korea suffer from violence from male supervisors and sexual harassment and inhuman treatment. The section in the labor standards law dealing with maternal protection is ignored.  This reality in which women workers live and work is continually deteriorating.  And as we see in Korea, subcontracting workers are mostly married women.  The reasons for their remaining in the manufacturing sector are centered around their family responsibilities and the vicinity of bud contracting work to their place of residence.

  These women workers suffer from lowered wage, irregular hours and exclusion from all benefits and welfare payments.  Workers dispatched by subcontracting agencies also have little protection for their rights because workers are no longer hired by the company where they actually do their work.   The agency system serves as a way to divided workers and avoid problems  of labor organising and escape of the law protection.
(Despatch workers; presently with the exception of workers in harbors and docks, law
enforcement, janitorial and service sector, temporary worker is illegal under existing laws).

Increase of  Flexible Workers

  As happened in many other countries, women are being gradually pushed into terribly low-paid insecure employment.  Over the last few year, the industry has increasingly shifted production to home-based.  However, in Asia, home-based workers have long been part of factory production.  The need  to supplement family income and the need to take care of the children and the household chores have forced women to accept extremely low wages doing factory work at home. the fact that women are willing to work at home is largely due to house hold responsibilities.

According to research on the conditions of home-based workers conducted by the Korean women's Institute, home-based workers are presumed to comprise 9.4% of active economic participants, but it has been to grasp the exact scope of home-based working.  We can only see a steady increase of home-based workers consistent  with the increase in employment in sub-contracting firms.  For the most part, homeworkers are assigned simple and labor intensive tasks in the labor process, and they are subject to periods of involuntary unemployment.  Their job security is very low while their income level is only 68% of other workers.  Furthermore, 53.1% of home-based workers are women with  children under six years of age.
In reality, such irregular employment discriminates against women workers because they  are not converted by the conditions of equality in regular employment offers 60% of the wages of regular employment and does not cover entitlement to various holidays and vacations as well as welfare benefits of regular employment. Furthermore, in the face of the threat of dismissal they are not free to joining labor unions.

Part-time employment, among part-time workers, women comprise 64.9%. Although the index of the Department of labor designates part-time employment was working 30.8% hours or less a week, if the hourly wage worker in Korea were to work the identical hours of regular employment, this would for the most part take up all of the nominal hours
  Most of these workers are older, subcontracting workers who have no choice but to enter as part-time works because of their childcare responsibilities.

Temporary workers in the manufacturing sector in Korea usually work the same number of hours as full-time workers and hence suffer from blatant discrimination in wage and benefits.
Also, the reason women part-time workers and temporary workers increasing need for a flexible work force.  The employers are also able to reduce its expenses by paying women workers less as casual workers and also used it as a way to divide workers and prevent them from joining together to fight.  On the other hands, job losses as a result of industrial restructuring has also forced retrenched women workers to accept part-time or temporary jobs even though it is much lower paid and insecure.

Women Workers Struggle

  Women workers' activism began as early as the seventies in Korea.  Women workers were actively participating in strike actions fighting on wage and working conditions and the right to organise.  In fact, the Korean women workers were well-know for their bravery in leading their country labor movement to the formation of democratic trade unions,  the women workers were finding that their own personal lives also interrupted their activism.  Parents, disapproval, marriage, societal pressure all took a toll on their ability to continue to be active.  In 1973 women workers started to organise themselves and study about the importance of unions.  They tried to change yellow unions into the democratic unions. Women Workers were actively involved in these struggles.

Most of the strong democratic unions were bed by women workers. During that time, Korea was under emergency law until 1980.  The political situation was in a critical period. I can not count how many workers were in jail because of their involvement in union activities. I saw how difficult it was for women workers to be involved with union or workers movement.  Women workers oppression comes not only from the management and police but also from the male workers, family members and husbands.( when women workers are on sit-in strike, the management and police used to break up the strike by employing male workers to physically beat the women workers.  Another tactic is call parents take their daughters home. When women workers confront their parents, often they get emotionally weak and can sometimes destroy the strike action.  Despite many difficulties women workers continue to struggle and organise and led the movement in the 1970s.  The leadership by women workers still continues.  Today the labor movement in Korea is led by both women and men.  this and from any own experience, I am convinced that women and men can share decision making.
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