On International Women's Day, Mar. 8th, we listened to the story from the organizer of 'Stop at 3 o'clock!', the first rally in South Korea which urged workers to leave work early to protest against the gender wage gap. Below is an interview with Ms. Younok Lim (standing representative of Korean Women Workers Association) who organized this rally. 




- Please tell us the background of the rally.


"In South Korea, it is taken for granted that women workers get paid less than men. It is a problem itself that this serious situation is not taken as a 'problem'. We, Korean Women Workers Association organized this rally as the best way to get people's attention to the gender wage gap, which we think is a clear index of gender inequality in South Korea." 


- Could you tell us more about people in today's rally?


"Today, we met many members from Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and Korean Women's Trade Union, including cleaning workers and non­regular school workers. To attend this rally, they took today off or used their allocated time for education as a union member. We also met many supporters from non-governmental organizations including women's organizations. We understand, in reality, it is not easy to leave work early no matter how much s/he supports our position. So, we asked our supporters to stand by us in the other ways, such as to stop working just for a moment at 3 PM or to take a photo of a note saying '#Stop at 3 o'clock!' if they could not leave the office for our rally."


- We have already seen similar rallies taking place in the other countries, such as Iceland, France, and UK. It was nice to watch today's rally, but it seemed somewhat late to have this rally today in South Korea, notorious for its biggest gender wage gap among the OECD nations. How did you feel about today's rally?


"I was really moved today. Despite our huge gender wage gap, it was not easy to be cleary aware of this problem in our society. People say, 'things are also tough for men', or 'these days women got more power than men.' But in reality, regardless of their age, South Korean women workers are under various types of sexual discrimination at the workplace, such as wage discrimination and sexual harassment. So far, there have been only a few supporting us in this issue, but today, here at the heart of Seoul, we freely expressed our anger and concern about this problem of the women workers. It moved me a lot, as I felt my 30 years of participation in the NGO movement for the women workers had helped to make some progress in society.〔tears〕"


- The gender wage gap of South Korea (37%), the worst among the OECD nations, is much bigger than the second biggest gap of Japan and  Estonia (26%). What do you think made the gender wage gap in South Korea so 'uniquely left behind'?


"I think it was mainly the patriarchal culture and system in South Korea. Korean women are burdened with care work for their family members, but hardly given any help from the government. It helps lower the quality of women's jobs in South Korea, as part­time jobs are almost the only option for these women, who have to juggle alone work and family responsibilities."


- You mentioned the decreased gender wage gap would also benefit the men workers.


"This is not a zero­sum game. Those who have benefited from the women workers' low income are not the men workers, but the employers. Right after the IMF crisis in South Korea, it was mainly the women workers whose working status was changed into the temporary position. Before long, the percentage of temporary employees among the men workers was also increased. This means, today's large proportion of temporary workers among the women workers is not just 'the problem of the women', but 'the problem of the entire labor market' in South Korea. When something made the women workers unhappy, it would not benefit the men workers, but harm every worker regardless of his/her gender. So, today I am asking the men workers to stand by us against the women's low income. South Korea's huge gender wage gap should not be just taken for granted, but should be overcome, so that we can make a more fundamental change in the working conditions in South Korea. If we better the most vulnerable jobs' working conditions, it will help to improve the overall labor environment in South Korean society."



* Counter­statements to the most frequent criticisms on the issue of the gender wage gap


1. 'Women workers are more likely to avoid the extra work at night or over the weekend. So, it is no wonder many companies favor men as their employees.' 


Ms. Younok Lim (standing representative of Korean Women Workers Association): I just want to ask. Who is cooking your breakfast and dinner? Who is taking care of your children and their school work? Who is looking after your sick parents? It is usually women who take all these family responsibilities. But are they really jobs only for women? Before criticizing women workers, we should first share their care work at home.



2. '37% of gender wage gap in South Korea is fair as the women workers work 37% less than the men workers in average.'


Ms. Younok Lim (standing representative of Korean Women Workers Association): Today's rally 'Stop at 3 o'clock!' was to get people's attention to the problem that women workers are paid 37% less than the men workers in average. This is as if women workers are working without pay for three hours everyday, from 3 to 6 PM. However, for the Korean women workers, this is not the only unpaid work time. After 6 PM, childcare and/or housework, their another type of unpaid work, is waiting for them at home. By the way, what's the use of arguing with the men over whose hard work should be more appreciated? It is the government and the companies which should be blamed first for the huge gender wage gap and unfavorable conditions for the work­family balance.



3. 'Bringing up the women's problems can make the gender relations more divisive.'


Ms. Younok Lim (standing representative of Korean Women Workers Association): We are not making the gender relations divisive. We just want to abolish sexual discrimination and hatred rampant in South Korean society. Regardless of their gender, all workers have rights to leave work at the regular time. During the time of pregnancy and child­rearing, both men and women workers have equal rights to shorten their working hours. Today's three days of paid paternity leave should be extended to one month, and men workers should be given equal rights and responsibilities to take leave to care for their young children. 



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   Yesterday, Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family issued a news release under the title, 'Women's career breaks decreased with the increase of part­time jobs, the most preferred job type for the unemployed women'. It was based on their 2016 survey on the economic activity of 4,835 Korean women aged 25 to 54. 


   The survey shows that most unemployed Korean women prefer part­time jobs, which they find relatively easy to mange with their other work at home, such as caring and educating young children, doing house chores, and taking care of other family members. This means in Korean society, care work at home is believed as the job only for women, which makes Korean women fettered by lots of responsibilities at home. They want part­time jobs because they need to make ends meet while doing care work as their primary job. This is reality for many unemployed women in Korea. 


   Although it is well known that the working conditions of part­time jobs are poor, Korean government keeps cornering Korean women into such low quality jobs. The average monthly wage for the part­timers in Korea is 740,000 Korean won (approximately 660 US dollars). This places 24.8% of the part­time workers directly under the influence of the minimum wage, which is at the highest level among the all non­regular workers in Korea. In Korea, the ratio of the part­timers who are being given pension and overtime pay is only 16.6% and 11.1%, respectively. Those who can enjoy their paid vacation comprise 9.2% among the part­time workers, while only 15.3% of them are being covered by the national pension plan. Their average years of service is 1.7, and the ratio of the unionized workers is only 0.6%. 29.5% of them belong to the company with less than five employees, known as the most vulnerable workplace to the exploitation of labor. 


   Unlike their propaganda, Korean government failed to create the 'decent part­time jobs', which did not really exist in Korean society. In the name of their efforts to create 'decent part­time jobs' at the public sector, many full­time jobs were changed to the part­time positions while some were even fired for the expiration of  employment contract. These par­time jobs are dead­end jobs, as they do not guarantee any possibility of being given more professional tasks or promoted in the future. However, these low quality jobs are being called 'jobs for the women' by the Korean government. Already 20% of women workers are now working part­time, while the number of part­time jobs has continuously increased during the last nine years of conservative governments. 


   This cannot be called a 'free choice'. It is not even a 'preference'. This is nothing but 'coercion' as many unemployed Korean women have nowhere to go except these low quality part­time jobs. What the government should do is to help change the social system in which society and other family members share care work at home. It could be the worst abrogation of responsibility if we do nothing but burdening women alone with all the care responsibilities at home. Korean government should not cover up the reality in which many women are 'forced' to work part­time because of their burden of care responsibilities. What they really want is a job where they can use and develop their own talent expecting  better future. What is needed for them is a social system where they can share their care responsibilities with the other family members  and society especially when re­employed, as well as a social policy which helps prevent women from experiencing career breaks due to their burden of care work, but not so­called 'decent part time jobs' that do not exist in reality.



Feb. 22, 2017

Korean Women Workers Association



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   On Jan. 13th, 2017, on the day when we Korean Women Workers Association had our annual meeting, Bokgyeong Seo, Research Professor at Sogang Institute of Political Studies, gave us a lecture before the meeting's main event. Throughout Professor Seo's lecture, many assumptions about the recent monopoly of state affairs in South Korean and the citizen's protests against it were examined with empirical evidence and theories. Below is a summary of her lecture. 



   Her first point was made on a position which attributed the recent monopoly of state affairs to the gender of President Park. According to Professor Seo, who should be blamed for the recent monopoly of state affairs is not just President Park, but the whole system of South Korean government, ruling party, and some media corporations, which are mostly made up of men. Professor Seo pointed out the fact that the constitution of Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in 1919 had guaranteed the franchise of people, regardless of their social status, class, and gender. She urged South Koreans not to be misled by some groundless position attributing the recent monopoly of state affairs to President Park's gender, as they were the citizens of a nation which had announced gender equality more than one hundred years ago. Today's breakdown of Korean government had been made possible not just by President Park alone, but by all those in power in South Korean society, Professor Seo insisted. 


   According to the survey conducted jointly by Naeil Daily Newspaper and Sogang Institute of Political Studies in December, 2016, the survey respondents who had participated in the protests against the recent monopoly of state affairs pointed out their anxiety about the future as the biggest reason for their participation in the protests. As the most severe conflict in today's South Korean society, 40.1% and 33.2% of the survey respondents pointed out class conflicts and ideological conflicts, respectively. In a  survey conducted three years ago in December, 2013, 34.9% and 39.4% of the respondents chose class conflicts and ideological conflicts, respectively, as the most severe social conflicts in South Korea. The survey result also shows how seriously the issue of class conflicts is being taken among the working-class citizens. The proportion of people who think the issue of class conflicts as a severe problem is 44.1% in the 2016 survey, while 29.1% in the 2013 survey. In the 2016 survey, only 10.7% of respondents in 20s and 8.1% of those in 30s regarded the distribution of wealth in South Korean society as equitable, and even among the respondents in their 60s, the proportion reached only 20.1%. According to Professor Seo, the main driving force which has issued the recent monopoly of state affairs is the choice South Korean citizens made in their 20th general election. As South Korean citizens found out through the election the others were also thinking of President Park's government as problematic, they began to more openly protest against its maladministration cases.



   As the cause of the recent monopoly of state affairs, 49.3% of respondents in 20's and 40.1% of those in 30's point out corrupt relationship among the conglomerates, government officials, and the prosecution. For 46.5% of respondents in 40's, 48.2% of those in 50's, and 40.8% of those in 60's, it is President Park's abnormal governing of administration which caused the recent monopoly of state affairs. This survey result shows that those in their 20s and 30s would be  satisfied only after fundamentally changing South Korean politics while those over 40 could feel okay with just changing the government. This can be also found out in the survey on the people's sense of political efficacy. 'Sense of political efficacy' measures how strongly a person believes s/he has the ability to influence politics. While the proportion of respondents who express disagreement with their inability to influence politics was 29% in a survey conducted in June 2016, it reached 53.3% in another survey conducted six months later. As before in South Korean society, when people's sense of political efficacy is low, their protests cannot fundamentally change their everyday political system. South Korean politicians knew this very well, so they used to resume their corruption once people's protests ceased. Now, however, 53.3% of the survey respondents believe their capability to change their politics. They believe they are better at making a change in the political system than the politicians. This means South Korean citizens are now less likely to overlook politicians' corruption than in the past. 



   In South Korea, it is the group aged from 35 to 44 who show the most radical positions in their political and economic issues. This might be because this generation experienced the IMF crisis in 1997 at the age of 17 through 25, which is a critical time to develop one's political opinions. They experienced a radical change in their labor environment, as many regular,  permanent positions were replaced by temporary, unstable ones after the crisis. Their anger and dissatisfaction with their labor environment made themselves have the most radical positions in the political issues. The younger generation, aged from 25 to 33, has different characteristics.  This is the first generation in South Korean society who has developed their sense of democratic rights from birth. Therefore, this group shows the most radical position in the issues of gender equality. Another interesting group is those in their 60s, as they have even more conservative positions in the political issues than those over 70. This is probably because they had highly nationalistic public education under the military dictatorship in the 1960s. 



   A graph on the age-specific sense of political efficacy shows that in every age group, sense of political efficacy is higher in December, 2016 than in June, 2016. Among the respondents in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, the proportion of people expressing their strong sense of political efficacy reaches more than 50%. 


   The point is it is those in their 50s who hold the casting vote in the elections. Although those aged from 19 to 49 make up 54% of the total voters, because of their low turnout, they only account for 40% among the actual voters. Once those in their 50s have more progressive positions on the political issues, we can make a bigger change. Those in their 50s are the most affluent among the all age groups, and among the all members of the National Assembly, the proportion of those in their 50s is the highest. It is this age group being represented more than its actual number in South Korean politics. In the last presidential election, their turnout reached 82%.




   Now, we can see this group in their 50s is beginning to act. Compared to those in the protests in 2008, participants in the recent protests in 2016 show more equitable distribution in their gender and age. This was possible as more women in their 40s and 50s participated in the recent protests. Interestingly, for more than half of the participants in the recent protests, it was their first-time experience to come out to the streets to demonstrate. It is not groundless to say that the total number of participants in the protests against the government reached ten million in 2016. 76.7% of the survey respondents in December, 2016 answered the protests against President Park's government should be continued until she entirely resigned the presidency. 



   Below are the typical survey questions which political scientists use to measure how people think of their political system; first, "democracy is always better than any other political system", second, "sometimes dictatorship is better than democracy", third, "between democracy and dictatorship, I do not mind which of them will be chosen." The below graph shows how South Korean citizens have answered since 1996 to the first question, "democracy is always better than any other political system." 


The answers to this very question can be also used to analyze how people think of social and political change. Based on the below graph, Professor Seo supposes how South Korean citizens in their 50s have felt about their governments. In 2002, they voted for the progressive ruling party as they had some empathy with the government which had been struggling with the IMF crisis. Once the progressive party came into power again with President Roh, Moo-hyun, citizens in their 50s got dissatisfied with his government as they felt his presidency did not help so much to improve their living. This is why the conservative party could come into power in 2007. One year later, in the general election in 2008, they showed the lowest voter turnout. In the 18th presidential election in 2012, they chose a five-term congresswoman Park, Geun-hye as they felt more familiar with her compared to her opponent Moon, Jae-in. However, their living got even worse, and they lost their trust in the political system, which could be shown in their responses to this first question in a survey in June, 2016. Once almost half of the respondents agree with this first question, political scientists see this as a sign of social change. After experiencing a series of maladministration cases of President Park's government, finally they came to a moment of reflection on their political situation. In the last survey in December, 2016, the proportion of respondents who agreed with the first question, "democracy is always better than any other political system" reached 75.5%, which was the highest proportion since 1996. 

  

   Citizens in their 20s through 40s will never stop. Once they experience their strong sense of political efficacy, they will hardly stand social and political system which keeps themselves poor and powerless. As our future is for this young generation, political support from those in their 50s is critical. Therefore, we need to organize the voices from those in their 50s. Most of the people participating in the recent protests are from the middle-class, who are capable of expressing their voices. However, those in their 50s, especially lower income, women workers working long hours are less capable of expressing their political opinions. They hardly have enough time to read newspapers or watch TV news. What we need to do is listen to them, not teach them, so that they can more freely express themselves on the political issues. 



   When our belongings are broken, we have two options; either repairing and reusing them, or throwing them away and buying the new ones. Unfortunately, our politics cannot be just thrown away. It should keep working with every single penny we pay for the tax. What we need to do is correct our malfunctioning politics, that is to make our public system work for its real owner, the citizens. 



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