Women Cooks, the Life of the Struggle Turned Scapegoat
Women Cooks, the Life of the Struggle Turned Scapegoat
  • reported by Choi Lee Boo-ja, bjchoi@womennews.co.
  • 승인 2001.10.10 00:00
  • 수정 2013-07-12 16:27
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Documentary (directed by Lim In Ae, produced by Lanet) was set to be screened at the Ulsan Human Rights Film Festival, which was postponed indefinitely due to the controversy over censorship. The film is about the life of women working as cooks in the Hyundai Motors union restaurant as they struggled from 1988 to 2000 against retrenchment and went up against the management and union to recover their jobs.

The film, commended for effectively portraying the suffering of the sexual minority and the hierarchy and authoritarianism internalized in the labor movement, drives the plot at a breathless pace, going from July 1998, when the women started their protest camp-out, to January 2000, when they concluded their struggle and went back to their workplace as subcontracted workers.


Waving slogans saying "lipstick prints on union flags made of rice scoops," the women joined their fellow union members in the protest camp-out, never dreaming that they would ultimately become the prime scapegoats in the union struggle.

The women had joined in the strike with gusto, beating their ladles against pots and pans. The male union members said that the struggle was merrier thanks to the ladies, and did not hesitate to call them the 'life of the struggle.' 

As the struggle continued into August 1988, the women started cooking food for the vanguard protesters. The company had cut off the gas supply, but the women used two small gas barrels to cook three meals a day for some three hundred people. Without being asked, they looked for ways to reduce expenses, scouring markets for thrown out vegetables, which they cleaned thoroughly and cooked into soup. It was tough work with no one to help them out, but the women faithfully stuck to their role, taking joy in finally feeling like true union members.

The ladies, who had opposed the management's move to turn them into subcontracted workers, heard on the news on August 19 after Minister of Labor Lee Ki Ho and government mediators had entered the scene that the 160 cooks were to be laid off. 

Trembling with anxiety and nervousness, the women held a meeting with the union president at 7:30 a.m. on August 21. The president said that the union could "either accept the mediator's proposal and end the fight peacefully or refuse mediation and eventually go down under the suppression of riot police." He also promised that "if the women were willing to accept the lay-off, the union will retain management of the restaurant and rehire all of them." The women were then told to arrive at a decision in one and a half hours, at 9 a.m.

Making a decision on a life-and-death matter in such a short time was not easy. Nevertheless, the women decided to put their trust in the union president and accepted the lay-off. 

At 6:30 a.m. on August 24, the workers and management agreed on the proposal drawn up by the mediatory team, thus concluding labor-management negotiations. Of the 1,538 workers on the lay-off blacklist, 1,261 went on unpaid leave and 277 were actually dismissed. As for the 144 women who had stayed with the strikers to the end, they were all laid off, down to the last woman.

That night, the rest of the strikers took down their tents, but the women gathered under their tent once again. They could not reconcile the fact that they had turned into subcontracted workers in a restaurant managed by none other than the union president. Furthermore, they could not help wondering if they were truly regarded as union members. They had worked so hard, feeding the men under the blazing sun all summer, and they could not accept that they were the only ones who had been laid off, right down to the last cook. 

In the end, the women decided that the entire union would be better off thanks to their sacrifice. Pinning their hopes on the agreement between labor and management to recall the dismissed workers and voluntary early retirees if the economy improved, the women went back to cooking on November 1. 

After the lay-offs, business picked up for Hyundai Motors, recording a net profit of 480 billion won in 1999 and reaching the profit goal of 800 billion won in 2000. The women decided to restart their struggle in August 1999, demanding their jobs back. 

However, the union, which the women had thought would be on their side, showed a lukewarm attitude. When a clash between the cooks and the security guards resulted in the company claiming damages against the women, they asked for protection from the union.

The union committee, however, decided that "protection could not be guaranteed, because the women were not being threatened by a decision made by the current committee." This happened on December 21. The women put up their tents in front of the union office and started a death fast. 

On January 18, 2000, 14 days into the hunger strike, a 'Special committee for the re-employment of union restaurant workers' was formed, and it was decided that the union would protect the cooks. However, the women did not get back their jobs. Today, they are still working as subcontracted workers, in the same workplace, with the same job description.

Director Lim In Ae says, "I can still recall the women's bewildered expressions as they gave up their struggle because of lack of support from other union members who considered fighting against the union a loss of face." Lim added that she wanted to "portray the degradation of workers' survival and dignity using retrenchment as a theme."

Lanet had initially planned to edit the 5-hour long film into a 2-hour-8-minute condensation of the main episodes of the struggle. Currently, the documentary is available for viewing episode by episode on the human rights film festival website.

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