Cold, unescapable reality for the temporary workers: Women workers told their stories right before the presidential election



※ On Feb. 23, 2017, a forum titled "Let's Remodel Women's Work and Life" was held in the National Assembly of South Korea. It was jointly held by Korean Women Workers Association and Korean Women's Trade Union, along with six members of the National Assembly (Insoon Nam, Chairman at Gender Equality and Family Committee / Mihyuk Kwon and Okjoo Song, Democratic Party of Korea / Samhwa Kim and Yonghyeon Shin, People's Party / Jeongmi Lee, Justice Party). Through the five articles on OhmyNews, an online news website in South Korea, we Korean Women Workers Association will report on this form. In this first article, we cover the voices from women workers who attended this forum as well as the survey result on the women's work issues and policies.


   First, Younok Lim, standing representative of Korean Women Workers Association, presented the result of a recent survey reflecting 563 respondents' thoughts on the women's work issues and policies in South Korea. For the respondents, today's most urgent problem for the women workers was low pay (24.2%, 162 respondents). Such issues as discrimination based on working status (13.1%, 88 respondents), unstable employment (10.1%, 68 respondents), sexual discrimination and harrassment (8.7%, 58 respondents), and long working hours (6.9%, 46 respondents) were also pointed out by the respondents as the urgent problems for today's South Korean women workers. 


   During the survey interviews, respondents described in detail the cold reality they lived as women workers in South Korea. "An unstable job which could be lost anytime", "low pay just to barely pay the bills", and "temporary position which cannot be escaped no matter how hard I work." These survey respondents' answers well reflect today's reality of low pay and unstable employment. The low pay of the women workers caused another problem as in the below answer; "I was cornered into so low­level jobs, that I had to work many hours just to earn a small amount of money. When I urgently needed money, I had no choice but to accept any job, even the one with much risk of sexual violence." This is the reality of many women workers in South Korea, where they have few options but to take jobs no matter how inferior their working conditions are. 


   Included in the answers were respondents' concern about various types of sexual discrimination at the workplace. At the job interviews, the very beginning of one's work life, women are already the target of sexual discrimination. "Men job seekers are advantaged just based on their gender", "interview questions on the marriage plan or child­rearing for the women interviewees", "job requirements only applied to the women, such as makeup and feminine behavior." "At the get­together, I was sexually harassed. I wanted to complain about it, but my coworkers stopped me saying 'at the workplace, that's the way it is.'" At the workplace, women experience not only the serious 'gender wage gap', but also the 'glass­ceiling' and 'alienation at the decision­making process.' Below is expressed one respondent's criticism at South Korea's labor market, where there is no place for the women workers to stand. "Companies exist only for men; most managerial positions are filled with men, and companies' culture itself is macho." 


   It was the 'change of non­regular workers' temporary positions to the permanent ones' which the survey respondents voted as the first agenda of the upcoming presidential election in the area of women's work policy (22.6%, 150 respondents). Such other issues as abolishing discrimination (19.0%, 126 respondents), raising minimum wage to 10,000 Korean won (16.3%, 108 respondents), reducing working hours (9.5%, 63 respondents), and creating decent jobs (5.9%, 39 respondents) were also mentioned as the important agendas to be discussed in the election. 


   It was many women workers' low positions as temporary workers which the survery respondents thought as the cause of their low pay, unstable employment, and discrimination based on the working status. At the workplace, sexual discrimination is often justified in the disguise of difference in the working status. While the proportion of temporary workers among the women workers is 53.8%, among the men workers, it decreases to 36.0%. From the point of recruitment, often women and men are given  different working statuses, temporary and regular positions. 


〔사진〕Women workers at the forum are telling their stories.

ⒸKorean Women Workers Association



   On this day, four women workers attended the forum and told the audience their own stories. 


〔사진〕Ms. Sejeong Kim, a job seeker

Ⓒ Korean Women Workers Association


   Ms. Sejeong Kim introduces herself as a job seeker, who is preparing the job interviews while working part­time for a living. Her job's hourly wage is very low, so she has to work long hours. In the midst of women workers' severe unemployment, her male friends are more easily passing the screening than her, although their GPA and English test scores are not as good as hers. When she luckily gets a chance for the job interview, she is asked a series of questions on her marriage and childbirth plans, and even whether she would keep working for the company once married. She is questioning how she could survive as a woman in South Korean society, where mothers are being ridiculed as the 'insects' while women without children are being criticized as the selfish. She asserts she would vote for a presidential candidate who promises to raise the minimum wage and to set a quota for hiring the young, with the equal ratio between the genders. 


〔사진〕Ms. Sojeong Park, a woman temporary worker Ⓒ Korean Women Workers Association


   Ms. Sojeong Park, who has been a temporary worker for twenty years, recalls her life as below; "I was always a temporary worker, both when I was not married and when I returned to work after childbirth." She wants to let others know there exist in this society those who called the 'temporary workers', and asks why they exist. From her point of view, it is the temporary position held by many women workers that has prevented them from getting married or having a baby. She tells that many women temporary workers in South Korea cannot say a thing when sexually harassed, in the fear of losing their jobs. "I want to live in a society where women temporary workers are equally respected as the others. I would vote for a presidential candidate who would try one's best to abolish employment instability as well as wage and employment discrimination based on gender", she asserts. 


〔사진〕Ms. Jeongi Lee, a care worker

Ⓒ Korean Women Workers Association


   A care worker, Ms. Jeongi Lee has pride in her job. To her, it is a very crucial and meaningful job, especially in this era of aging population. However, her such pride does not guarantee her a living. Her monthly pay only reaches 700,000 Korean won although she works five to six hours per a working day. When her old customer suddenly dies, she also suddenly loses her pay. She says, "I would vote for a candidate who would try her/his best to help all the underprivileged citizens to live their lives with dignity." 


〔사진〕Ms. Hyesuk Lee, a vocational counselor and a working mother Ⓒ Korean Women Workers Association


   A career counselor, Ms. Hyesuk Lee starts her story telling jobs which she helps women to get are mostly low-paying jobs. No matter how good one's educational background is, once she experienced a career break, she has few choices but to accept the job whose first monthly pay is 1,500,000 Korean won. If the same person's wage could be very much different depending on what kind of job s/he gets, there is something wrong with the society, she thinks. She insists when decreasing the wage gap between the occupations, we can change today's education system, in which students are being driven into the extreme competition for a high-wage job. She has been a working mother for the recent five years, and feels angry about the reality in which it is mostly women, but not men who have to juggle work and family. "If the women workers are given enough pay, they would not give up their jobs so easily", she says. In this context, she urges society and family members to share housework and care responsibilities. For this, it is needed to make care workers' employment more stable and to require all workers with young children to use child­care leave, she insists. 


   Politics should start from listening to people's real voices. Listening to their voices, we can find what is a problem in our society, and how to solve it. And the ears for these voices always have to be toward the most unprivileged. 



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   The time under President Park's government, which will be remembered as one of the most distrusted government by many South Korean citizens, was especially tough for the women. Five out of six women workers are now struggling with their minimum­wage level  income. Once women experience career breaks, they are given few career options but the unstable, temporary jobs with low pay. But in South Korea, this is not the first time the women workers became the most vulnerable to the entire social risks.


   In the 1970s, despite their huge contribution to the economic development of South Korea, South Korean women workers suffered from their low income and unstable working conditions. In the late 1990s, at the time of the IMF crisis, the women workers were the easiest target of dismissal for the companies. And this year, the young women workers are in the midst of recent unemployment crisis. These young women had been taught to dream big, and they believed they could make it. However, entering the labor market, they experienced various types of discrimination, such as employment discrimination, lookism discrimination, and violence based on gender. Strikingly, all these types of discrimination were being so openly committed. In this unequal society, where women can hardly compete with men in the labor market, recent talks on empowered women's status are nothing but the lies to cover up today's gender inequality. 


   So­called 'decent jobs' are hardly open to the women. Once women came through extreme competition and succeeded in landing a job, they have to struggle with a glass ceiling. At the workplace, women workers are often disadvantaged for the promotion, paid less, and given the unstable working status. The higher the rank in the company, the lower the percentage of women workers holding the position. The burden of child­rearing is another obstacle for the women workers. Although they are given almost all the child care responsibilities, their rights to care their young children are hardly protected. Men workers are also hardly guaranteed rights to look after their young children. To many workers in South Korea, whose fertility rate is the lowest among the OECD countries, child­care leave is the option for only a few who are 'very brave'. 


   During their time of pregnancy and child­rearing, many South Korean women experience career breaks. When they re­enter the job market later, the quality of jobs available to them is much lower than that of their previous jobs, both in the income and in the working status. The elderly women workers are, in general, placed at the bottom of the labor market in South Korea. Many elderly women are working either as the subcontracted workers, who are the most vulnerable group even among the temporary workers, or as the care workers, who are being 'publicly exploited' by the government. Their pay is considered just 'additional' to their family income, and their role at the workplace is  regarded as just 'ancillary'. This tells us women in this country have been long suffering from discrimination and exploitation, regardless of their age and generation. 


   All this absurdity and inequality in South Korean society can be summarized as the numbers, '100:64'. This is South Korea's gender wage gap, twice of the OECD nations' average and the biggest among them for the recent 15 years. This means women are paid only 64 while men are paid 100 for their work. This is as if after 3 PM women work without pay everyday. This is the reason why today on International Women's Day, we women workers came together to shout "Stop at 3 o'clock!". We South Korean women workers are on the edge of a precipice, as we are underestimated, treated as cheap labor, and deprived of our opportunities at the workplace. 


   We want a society where women are no longer deprived of their rights due to their gender. 

   We want a nation where sexism and the exploitation of women is taken as a deeply serious problem.

   We will fight to obtain our lost rights and 36% of 'pocketed' income. 

   Worldwide, it is women who have been the easiest target of discrimination and exploitation. However, women have power to persistently fight for their rights and to improve their society. This is how women gained the franchise and how they could stand against and criticize those of supreme power. We, South Korean women workers will also keep fighting against our society's problems. 


   In order to help make our society more just and safe for the women, today, we women workers will begin a campaign to obtain signatures from 100­thousand South Korean citizens, as a way to demand the problem of gender wage gap to be chosen as the upcoming presidential election's agenda. 

   The gender wage gap should be abolished! 


On International Women's Day, Mar. 8th, 2017


By the participants in a rally against

the gender wage gap, 'Stop at 3 o'clock!'





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On March 8th, International Women's Day, Korean Women Workers Association and women workers together held a rally to protest against South Korea's gender wage gap, which is the biggest among the OECD nations. Below are our precious

moments in the rally 'Stop at 3 o'clock!'.



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