They are not machines: Korean women workers and their fight for democratic trade unionism in the 1970's
The 1960's and the 1970's were decades of extraordinarily rapid change in South Korea. The military coup that took place in May, 1961 presaged eighteen years of increasingly harsh and oppressive authoritarian rule under the leadership of Park Chung-hee, during which time South Korea shed its centuries old dependency upon rural agrarianism and emerged as one of the world's premier industrial economies. At the forefront of this advance was the textile and garment industry; a manufacturing complex characterised by a myriad of sweat-shop factories in which the overwhelming majority of employees were girls and young women.\ud \ud Working conditions in these establishments were of a universally low standard, and all notions of workers' rights and dignities were sacrificed for the government-sponsored imperative to maximise exports and minimise costs. To facilitate this circumstance, the Park Chung-hee regime constructed a nation-wide trade union organisation that was, in effect, nothing more than an agent of the state: unrepresentative of, and unresponsive to, the interests of workers in all industries.\ud \ud With little, or no, support from male co-workers, and despite their political naivety and the traditionally subordinate status of Korean females, the women textile and garment workers confronted the state, the employers, and their 'official' trade union representatives, and succeeded in forming the nucleus of a fully democratic labour organisation. The enterprise-level democratic trade unions thus formed were not isolated or transient phenomena but included educational and vocational 'outreach' programmes of mutual support, the purposes of which were to enhance individual awareness and extend the concepts of solidarity and collectivity throughout the industrial sector.\ud \ud One of the purposes of this dissertation is to make visible the hidden history of these women. Writers and commentators on South Korean industrial relations share a common disregard for the achievements of the women activists of the 1970's and, instead, locate elsewhere the birth of democratic trade unionism. This study takes advantage of unique access to the life histories and personal records of many individuals, both male and female, who were actively involved in the events of the period. It presents a narrative of the lives and the attainments of women workers whose struggles have gone largely unrecorded, and whose outstanding accomplishments have, until now, remained uncelebrated.
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