|Marie Rhie Chol Soon, a well-known labour activist from South Korea, visited Hong Kong from 28-31 March for the book launch of the Chinese version of Birth of Resistance: Stories of Eight Women Worker Activists. (Maria is one of the activists whose stories were included.) She was interviewed by AMRC on the last day of her stay in Hong Kong, sharing her experiences and views of the women workers’ movement in South Korea in the past, present and future. |
AMRC: Comparing the past period of the labour movement and the present, in the present post-industrial economy, how has the shape and focus of the labour movement changed? And what is the role of the women workers’ movement in it?
There were no ‘temporary workers’ in the 1970s. Wages were low and working conditions were deteriorating. Working hours ranged from 12 to 16 hours per day. Holidays were only once a month. It was the period under a dictatorship government which imposed emergency law, under which no one was free to exercise their right of association. Even three people could not come together to defend their rights and be critical of the government. Even though there were unions, they were not really independent unions. The unions had no collective actions at all. They were rich unions. Workers did not even know whether they were unions or not. But the awareness of workers could be awaked by informing them their rights under the labour law.
Mostly women workers then were young, like 17. They just came to earn money. They lived in dormitories, sharing rooms with friends. They were totally innocent about their rights. When I taught at night school for these young women workers, I asked them why they had to take jobs here. They would all give similar reasons, like supporting young brothers. Their families put all their hopes in the boys, and their daughters were asked to sacrifice themselves. It was very difficult to raise women’s issues then. I was very proud of the young women for not being selfish to better their own lives. At that time many young women wanted to study but they didn’t have the chance.
The Chinese version of the book Birth of Resistance: Stories of Eight Women Workers Activists.
Nowadays, the labour market is different and keeps changing. Fewer women are in manufacturing sectors. Issues of women could be different from those of the factory workers in the 1970s, most of whom were migrant workers from different provinces. Now we are working with married women, middle-aged women who have more responsibility than before. When they were young, they lived far away from home and they were only controlled by the male supervisor at work. After work, they were free. Now middle-aged women are bound by house work, and it is even more difficult to unionize these women than before. They are very scared of losing their jobs. Women are being chained in multiple ways. Organizers nowadays must create new ideas to cope with all these situations.
AMRC: As a women’ workers movement, the difference from a mainstream male-dominated trade union shows partly in its focus on job creation, because of the high unemployment faced first and mostly by women workers, and also in the minimum wage issue which is more critical for women near the poverty line. Can you elaborate more on your gender analysis of the labour movement, and how is it reflected in your activities?
Multinational corporations are moving around and most of them are labour-intensive. When they move, most women lose their jobs or become migrant workers, flexible workers or temporary workers. In response to these issues, therefore, we created a women’s trade union, as NGOs do not confront the company, but only respond by boycott campaigns. Because of the women’s trade union, women could fight for their own rights. If the owner didn’t like any women workers, they would sack them anytime. These women workers could now complain to the trade union. The women’s trade union would come in front of the boss, embarrassing him and making him hear their views.
On the other hand, we also keep organizing house workers. People think house work is women’s work. We recognize house work as professional, so we changed the name of the work to ‘house manager’. Since the association of house managers has grown, we are thinking of making a social enterprise from it, by creating some projects on social welfare for low-paid women workers living under poverty line and mothers who have babies. House managers are being paid by a foundation from the government as a project; later the funding can be from other supporting organizations. We also advocate job sharing by making use of unemployment insurance to hire house managers to do house work for full-time workers.
AMRC: KWTU (Korean Women’s Trade Union) and KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Union) - are there systematic exchanges? How have they influenced one another, especially: how has KWTU influenced KCTU, if in any way?
At the beginning of setting up the women’s trade union, the union started by doing research on the phenomenon of temporary workers who were getting half the salary of permanent workers and irregular based employment after the economic crisis (in 1998). When the women’s union shared the finding of the studies, KCTU was one of the panelists. The conclusion of that study was the need to organize women workers, which was also agreed by KCTU.
The women’s union also networks with them and shares discussions and some joint events with them.
In general, ordinary labour activists are only interested in fighting against big companies. They may think that breaking down big companies is breaking down big capitalists. Besides, trade unionists don’t see women’s issues, such as breast-breeding, maternity leave and day care centres, as issues to be put into their collective bargaining. On the other hand, the women’s trade union was formed to tackle these women issues and has successfully raised them into collective bargaining.
The women’s union not only makes changes inside the company but also initiates structural changes of the society which could be of benefit for all women workers.
AMRC: How has KWTU/Korean Women Workers Association (KWWA) worked with the women’s movement, with women’s organizations? Do they closely support and influence each other? Can you give examples of any cooperation?
Three years ago, there was a legal amendment passed, that a child’s family name can be chosen between either the surname of father or mother. Women also now have some rights to inherit assets from the family. This is the result of the women’s movement in Korea, which KWWA and KWTU are part of. KWWA and KWTU are two wheels of the women workers’ movement. The former is doing campaign and policy development and the latter is organizing workers and defending workers’ rights. Working Women Academy (WWA), which I now work for, is doing education, training and leadership building for the women workers’ movement - like giving oil to the wheels. They have all worked together with other women’s groups on common issues such as expansion of the periods for paternity leave and for maternity leave.
AMRC: As you have mentioned before, many women worker leaders stop their participation in the labour movement once they get married. Do you choose to stay unmarried in order to work longer in the movement? Do you think it is a gender issue that women worker activists cannot get married while they are actively involved in the movement?
When I was young, I did a lot of activities such as night school teaching, to meet students and gather workers together in an area where there was no workers’ movement. After five years of this constant activism, others were able to take my place, so I moved on. I was 29 year old. People mistakenly thought that I wanted to get married. Actually I had a boyfriend at that time. He was making dramas for the movement, composing songs. He asked me to stop my work, to spend more time with him. But I rejected his request, because my life is mine! I just let him goes his way and I went on my own way. I have never regretted my choice. If I got married, I could not have continued to contribute to the movement activism. I don’t have any doubt of that.
People might be worried about my life when I get older. I am not concerned about it, though. I am only concerned about the present. Society is not changed in one day, it is just a process. While we are in the process, I just want to be there to contribute to the process. You have to enjoy what you do. If you are not happy, it is not valuable for you to struggle.