"All the resources have been organized in one book." That is how Lee Ok Ji, who co-authored
"Women workers led the labor movement until the mid-1980's, and became the foundation of the labor movement today."
However, the women were overshadowed by male workers in conglomerates and heavy industries, and did not get due recognition. Even articles on women labor activists are written in a gender-ambiguous manner, leading the reader to assume that the stories are about men.
The book deals with the period from the 1920's to mid-1990's. Lee authored volume 1 spanning the history of the movement up to 1986, and then passed the baton to Kang for volume 2.
"Control of labor during Japanese colonial rule was similar to the Yushin era (period of constitutional and social reform in 1972~1981 initiated by Korea's infamous fourth Republic). This led to numerous struggles by women workers in the rubber and textile industries. The corporate practice of hiring gangsters to break up strikes existed back then, and during US military rule, various bad labor laws were already in existence."
The Korean women's labor movement started with the Japanese imperialists' move to turn Korea into an industrial colony. However, the Korean war and consequent reduction of factory workers in the 1950s and 60s led to a lapse in the movement.
And then at the end of the 60s, the movement became active again, "as if it had returned to the Japanese colonial era." In the 1960s, light industries still dominated the Korean economy, allowing women workers to outnumber the men and become the leaders of the workers' struggle.
"It is difficult to understand where they found the passion and spirit of sacrifice, but the women persevered, wanting to be the 'masters of their lives.' Working conditions were deplorable, with some places where overtime hours were even longer than the 8 regular working hours. The women harbored a deep-seated sense of discontent over the fact that they were factory workers. According to a survey in 1978, this dissatisfaction heightened about 5 years into the job. As opposed to the men, whose salaries kept climbing, the women were pressured to resign, with deteriorating eyesight and aching limbs thanks to the killing hours of harsh labor."
Explains Lee, "Even though they didn't use expressions such as menstrual leave or abolishment of gender discrimination, women workers in several workplaces began to make their demands known."
"Before, women workers couldn't do anything when male officers in the management touched them, but after the workers of Bando Trading formed a union, the women stopped sexual harrassment on the job. And they got the management to address the union president as President Han instead of just 'Miss Han.' At Samsung Pharmaceuticals, the women demanded that the company educate its management staff so that they would not use derogatory forms of speech to the production workers. By today's standards, the women's demands may not seem to be much, but back then, it was the norm for men to 'speak down on' even college graduate women."
After the mid-80s, the women-led labor movement appears to decline. However, Kang's volume 2 proves that the women workers kept up a steady struggle.
In order to portray as accurately as possible the lives of each woman activist, Lee documented in great detail the words and actions of the management and well as the foul language used by the police.
Lee wrote her doctorate thesis in 1990, entitled 'Labor Control and the Labor Movement in the Korean textile industry.' Her first contact with the Korea Women Workers Association United was in 1994. During her college years, Lee always thought that 'women could succeed if they tried hard enough,' and was not particularly interested in the women labor movement. But she witnessed the Dongbang Textiles incident and eventually got involved, and her experiences left a deep impression on her.
The planning of <History of Korean Womens' Labor Movement> began in 1997 and took 4~5 years to write. It was a laborious process, particularly because of the limit to available resources. Documentation of historical incidents often fail to specify whether women played a central role. The authors had to make deductions based on names that appear, work on hearsay, and compare various materials in searching for notable incidents. Furthermore, it was often difficult to track down the women who had been active before the 1980s.
"I hope that the book will draw out the numerous women who had been active in the labor movement but whose whereabouts is a mystery today. So hopefully the next edition will contain more in-depth stories."
Lee revealed that "there are women with vast experience in the labor movement of the 60s and 70s who have turned full-time housewives because no one has asked for their services." Stresses Lee, "We should enable these women to tap into their knowledge."