Unstoppable Fighting Women

The Legacy of the Tollgate Workers’ Struggle ④

Hee Jeong 2020-11-02

[When laid-off tollgate workers climbed up to the canopy of Seoul tollgate last June, the reality of their working conditions became known. The workers went on strike for 217 days to demand that the Korea Expressway Corporation convert them into direct hires, exposing the public sector’s exploitation of service workers. The Korea Expressway Corporation announced a plan to directly hire employees, but said that if workers were to lose their lawsuit, employees hired after 2015 would have their direct employment revoked. This past February, after nine months of protest, the tollgate workers ended their strike and disbanded. However, their fight isn’t over. Here, we look back on the struggle of the toll workers who brought attention to the issue of creating permanent public sector jobs, and we discuss their significance and how society needs to respond as we move forward. - Tollgate Fight Recording Team.]


A mysterious mass layoff despite no financial crisis


“To be honest, I didn’t expect to get fired. In July, they said they’d create a subsidiary, but 1,500 workers were against it, so I didn’t think they’d do it. It’s not that I was scared, I just thought they’d review the subsidiary policy one more time, rather than laying off so many workers.” (Choi Yang-ye, 15-year tenure, West Ansan Office)


In the transition to becoming a permanent employee of the Korea Expressway Corporation, Ms. Choi was fired for choosing the option to become a direct hire of the government instead of joining their employer’s subsidiary. The Korea Expressway Corporation had advised her and her colleagues to choose the subsidiary option. She had wondered, “They wouldn’t fire all these people, right?” Then, over the course of June 2019, 1,500 female tollgate workers were laid off.


The mass layoff was baffling.  How could the public sector carry out such a massive layoff at the risk of facing public backlash? Of course, laying off a thousand people isn’t unprecedented. Our country went through the 1998 Asian financial crisis. At that time, many restrictions around layoffs were loosened. And in 2009, Ssang Yong Motor laid off 2,646 workers. But the justification at those times was that our country or the company were bankrupt.


There is no justification for the layoff of these tollgate workers. Furthermore, the public’s reactions to these incidents seem different this time. In the Ssang Yong Motor case, it was the “heads of families” who’d been fired. According to the public, those layoffs didn’t affect just individuals but also the thousands that those breadwinners were expected to feed. When the tollgate workers were fired, no one said anything of that sort. Let’s be honest. If these 1,500 female tollgate workers had been men, would they still have been laid off en masse?


▲ Tollgate workers march through the streets of Gwanghwamun.  ©Hee Jeong


Getting fired isn’t the hard part


Even getting fired from a part-time job is demoralizing. But the tollgate workers didn’t say much about feeling bad or hopeless about the situation. Instead, they usually said they were pissed off.  They expressed feelings of anger, rage, and resentment building up.


“During our rally, someone came to let us know that we’d been fired and left after reading us our termination letter. You know who he was? He worked for the Korea Expressway Corporation. They never wanted any affiliation with us (service workers), but when it came down to firing us, it was the Korea Expressway Corporation who did it. It’s each and every one of those actions that make us sick.” (Lee Eun-Ja, Three-year tenure, Samcheok Office)


The resentments about the degrading treatment they’d been subjected to by the Korea Expressway Corporation built up little by little and led them to the fight they’re in today. When they speak of the layoffs, however, their demeanor is more calm than angry. When I asked one tollgate worker if she was scared or worried about being fired, this is what she told me.


“Getting fired isn’t the hard part.”


How could that be? Getting fired from a job is hard. There’s even a saying that getting fired is akin to being murdered. But as middle-aged women, they're used to getting fired by now.


The labor of women with families


Offices with an average of ten employees fired at least one or two employees each year. Why? The Korea Expressway Corporation claimed it was because of the Hi-pass (automation) system. I’m not sure about that. When you ask the fare collectors how long their contracts were, they say six months to a year. There’s a class of people who will sign this kind of contract. People who are easier to fire. These are usually women, and especially middle-aged or elderly women.


I heard this from a woman who worked at a manufacturing company. Her company told her that that’s how they create contracts.


“If you plan on having a child, you get a six-month contract; if you won’t be having a child, you get a one-year contract.”


Women planning to have or take care of children were only offered short-term contracts. There’s no chance that a society like this would offer a lifelong job to a married woman. No permanent jobs, no full-time jobs.


“When I tried to reenter the workforce after raising my kids, there was no place for me. Most job openings were already contract positions, and it was difficult for a woman with an employment gap to find a permanent job.” (Lee Jung-mi, four-year tenure, Wonju Office)


The kinds of jobs waiting for women reentering the workforce were temporary positions. They were lucky to find contract jobs among these. Even part-time ones. But they were usually offered jobs with no contracts.


Even the government encouraged women to take part-time jobs, calling them “work and family friendly.” As a result, companies were legally able to create part-time workforces. Ironically, being “work and family friendly” made the jobs more precarious and unstable. When a woman’s workplace and family were in conflict (the house was a mess and no one was looking after the family since the woman was working), she was expected to choose her family.


Family was a big reason why these women chose to work at the tollgates. One of the advantages of fare collection work is that it’s divided into three shifts, even though this is a difficult work style that will give you an irregular sleeping schedule. “It lets you take care of the housework during the day.” And what else? “We don’t work overtime.” “When you get home, you can just forget about your job.” Why do you need to forget about your job? Because there’s also housework that needs to be done.


Women with families work for a short time and can easily get fired. Companies don’t even formally fire them. They just tell them to go home and rest. If the woman questions the dismissal, the company retorts that the woman’s husband must be lacking something if she wants to keep working. For these women, this layoff wasn’t their first. The Korea Expressway Corporation was able to carry out these mass layoffs because they were aware of these circumstances. Since more than 1,000 of those laid off were women, the corporation faced much less criticism and pressure from society.


▲ Tollgate workers holding an uation session after completing one a day of the Gwanghwamun tent sit-in.   ©The Korean Democracy and Federacy Workers’ Union’s Tollgate Branch


I held it in because I’m an ajumma, and I fought because I’m an ajumma


There’s nothing to be sorry or hopeless about when faced with a termination letter. “We’re not scared of them firing us.” The day before the layoffs, they went up to Seoul and camped out in front of the Seoul Tollgate. Besides, if they left this job, just another job to get fired from would be waiting for them. They fought because they were aware of the prospects.


“I think that everything piled up and exploded. It was the fact that we are ajummas [middle-aged married women] and temporary workers. We have pent-up anger. The heat of that anger was explosive.” (Yoo Kyung-hwa, 10-year tenure, Maesong office)


She says their reason for fighting is because they’re ajummas.

“We say it amongst ourselves. We do this because we’re ajummas.”


But she says that being an ajumma is also the reason why the Korea Expressway Corporation took her rights away. “They say, ‘What do ajummas know?’ We’ve never been able to say what we want to say.”


Why does the word ajumma carry so many meanings? They said that ajummas are considered to be ignorant. Then, I ask, since when did the ajummas start to know things? Most of them say, “While working with the labor union.”


“We came to know our rights and say what we had to say from working with the union.”


These answers made me emotional. But I heard a couple of stories like this. I had more questions. Was that really so? Were they like blank pages of paper that had an awakening upon joining a labor union? When I ask about this, they kindly explain their reasons to me. Since they were locked up in the house raising their kids, they didn’t know what was happening in the world.


“If you go out with a stroller, you only end up meeting other moms with strollers. If you go to a daycare center, you only see the other moms who go to the daycare center. That’s where my world started and ended.” (Chang Hyo-joo, Eight-year tenure, Songtan office)


As their worlds expanded, they came out to a world ready to hire and then fire them. Since it’s considered a luxury for a married woman to even be nitpicking over their benefits or wages, they sometimes pretended to be unaware of their conditions when actually, they knew.


“There are no jobs for women here in the countryside. If they give me a shot, I just say thank you for the opportunity and do my job.” (Lee Eun-ja)


Through their work with the union, they became more aware of the poor working conditions around them. But they continued to endure. Society says these women’s wages are just “tutoring fees for their kids,” but few people are willing to work eight hours a day just to make enough for tutoring fees.


“I’ve lived my life being cheated, whether I’ve been aware of it or not.”


When a situation seemed outside of their control, they’d give up since they were just ajummas. They knew how cruel the world was for a middle-aged woman.


The labor of middle-aged women: you think it’s easy?


“I can feel the differences between working as a young woman versus working now as an ajumma. Working as a young woman was easier. They would be more lenient with me. But when I became an ajumma and re-entered the workforce, no one cut me any slack at all. There’s so much more demanded from me now. It’s a lot harsher. That’s the reality of it.” (Yoo Kyung-hwa)


“Working is different since I became an ajumma” doesn’t just refer to a difference in the intensity of labor or salary amount. Korea is a place where society openly sells but disregards the labor of middle-aged women. Since society insists on giving them a tough time, they’ve had to forge their own paths, but because of that, they’re seen as “combative, simple-minded, and stubborn”.


Even though everyone experiences aging, it’s strange that aging for women has this kind of belittlement attached to it. In order to escape this belittlement, you either need money or the youthfulness created by money (anti-aging). This is out of reach for those who make a living by working day after day.


Knowing how the world saw them, they kept their heads down. They even found themselves saying that “ajummas are crazy.” Even after fighting like hell, they worried about looking crazy in society’s eyes.


▲ Tollgate workers welcoming supporters during a sit-in protest at the Korea Expressway Corporation headquarters in Gimcheon.  ©The Korean Democracy and Federacy Workers’ Union’s Tollgate Branch


Although they’d kept their heads down, life was still tough, and not only because their lives had been shaken up by the layoffs. When you are looking after your family and kids in a world where neither the state nor society has much to offer, life can only be tough.


Society trivializes fare collection as work that “anyone can do” (you frequently see this comment posted on articles about the fight of female tollgate workers) but for the tollgate workers, fare collection is an art they’ve come to master through perseverance.


“Even after the training, you spend at least a month using your own money to cover the unpaid fares. A lot of people quit because it breaks the bank and breaks you as an individual. If you fight through it and hold out, that’s one mountain you’ve crossed.” (Jang Hyo-joo)


Once you get used to the job, you start becoming good at it and building expertise. “There’re some temperamental ajeosshis who refuse to pay the fare. They scream and shout at you. How is anyone supposed to deal with those folks?” But they deal with them. It’s their job. Somehow, they find a way.


“I’ve told so many lies to get them to pay. I say, ‘We want to let you through for free, but the camera is watching everything. The camera in front is recording everything, so you’d to have to pay it eventually anyway.’”


Inside the square, one-pyeong toll booth


Customers complained on the uation/performance scorecards, which the tollgate workers’ managers took very seriously. The ones on the frontlines of preventing those complaints were the female tollgate workers. It was their job. Since it was their job, they did the best they could. They built their expertise. That’s how they made a place for themselves. No matter how much their work was belittled, they had fun in the toll booth—their square, one-pyeong [3.3 m2] world.


“I’m responsible for everything inside the booth. I’m the owner of that small world.”


Neither the home nor the workplace offered them a place of their own. The home demanded that they be caretakers; society told them that their place was in the home and used that as the basis to pay them lower wages. Nevertheless, they created a place for themselves at work. They competed with their colleagues for the right to keep their job, and at times, they even advocated on behalf of each other.


Their managers would cruelly order them to choose a colleague who should get fired (they would ask them to write the name of an employee to fire), but knowing how precious a month’s worth of income was, the women would chip in enough to cover one person’s monthly pay so everyone could keep her job. (This took place at Incheon and other offices; it was called “job sharing” among the employees.) This arrangement kept everyone’s jobs safe.


“Considering what we’ve been through as service workers, they (the Korea Expressway Corporation) know better than anyone that we’ve fought tooth and nail to survive.” (Do Myung-hwa, Korean Democracy and Federacy Workers’ Union’s Tollgate Branch Manager, Seosan Tollgate)


▲ Tollgate workers celebrating New Year’s Day at the Korea Expressway Corporation Headquarters.  ©Public Sector Workers Union, Korea Expressway Corporation Branch


They put up a tough fight for a place to stand. With that strength, they proved their critics—who called them simple-minded, who thought of them as stubborn, who said their job was simple repetition that anyone could do—wrong. They fought to claim their rightful place as direct hires of the Korea Expressway Corporation.


They found a path to lead them to that place. In a society unwilling to help them, they gained a valuable tool—organizing. They came together as a workers’ union. They’ve come to learn that in this fight for survival, you need others next to you and working alongside you. Joining forces and organizing allowed them to have their say.


Why women fight so hard


Over the course of the 217-day fight away from home, the workers voiced what needed to be said.


“The president of the Expressway Corporation saw us as trash. (When we were fired) he thought we’d just take it, but he must’ve been surprised that there was a lot of fight left in us.


When planning the mass layoff, the corporation was probably concerned about more than just the possibility of public criticism. They must have considered the possibility of the workers’ resistance. How many of the laid off workers would be willing to fight to the end? The corporation was too optimistic. They probably thought, “How could a woman with a family stay out and fight for long?”


“We didn’t react the way that the Expressway Corporation had predicted.”


The Expressway Corporation based their expectations for the aftermath of mass layoffs on the premise that the workers were ajummas. Those same women ended up repeatedly shattering the company’s expectations.


“We’ve had to hold down jobs and run households at the same time, and we haven’t had a proper sleep schedule from working three shifts a day. We’ve had incredibly tiring lives, but here at the protest site, we eat and sleep at a set time. Even if it's outside, we’ll sleep wherever.” (Lee Jung-mi, four-year tenure, Wonju Office)


After she said this, she asked, “Why do you think we can’t fight?” This wasn’t a question for just the Korea Expressway Corporation. The women’s drive to fight arose from the struggles they’d endured in their lives. They fought well because there was no reason they would fight poorly. Although the tollgate workers hid it, they have pride in their ajumma identity.


“We’ve gotten this far in the fight because we’re women.”


▲ Memorial service table set up on top of the Seoul Tollgate canopy by tollgate workers who continued their high-altitude sit-in during Chuseok.  ©The Korean Democracy and Federacy Workers’ Union’s Tollgate Branch


Perhaps even the Korea Expressway Corporation (or at least, its regular workers) recognized the power of the tollgate workers’ struggle. They called the tollgate workers’ takeover of the corporation’s headquarters “an invasion unlike anything in history.” They said they’d “never heard of or seen anything like that.” These sentiments were expressed in a statement released by the corporation’s Full-time Workers’ Union (a part of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions).


They’re right. The tollgate workers’ 217-day long sit-in was an extraordinary protest. Those surprised after seeing a mass uprising of women like that for the first time asked, “How are women able to fight like this?” They called it strange, incredible, or inspiring. Whatever the reaction was, it assumed that women who fight hard are an anomaly.


In a world where women can be called ‘crazy’ and can’t show strength or confidence, the tollgate workers gained dignity for themselves. But the world continued to undermine them. When they would return from fighting like “Fearless Women” (the title of a report about the tollgate workers’ fight aired by KBS’s Current Affairs), they would open mainstream internet sites and see photos of themselves crying or shouting. One day, a poorly blurred photo showing the naked upper halves of their bodies spread through the internet.


The public’s gaze toward the topless protests


“Someone I’d gotten close to later asked me, ‘Why did you take off your shirt?’” (Yoo Kyung-hwa)


After saying this, she paused. The tollgate workers who had occupied the Gimcheon Expressway Corporation headquarters had staged a topless protest. It happened right before the riot police suppressed them.


“Do you think I just did that for the heck of it? In terms of physical strength, we didn’t have any other choice. On one hand, it’s sad; on the other hand, it’s inspiring. I’m not ashamed at all. I’m proud of myself. I’m grateful to have gone through that together with my colleagues.”


Her last sentence caught my ear. “I’m grateful to have gone through that together…”


“At that time, I was outside of the headquarters. But I felt it was right to be with the other workers even if it meant I’d be dragged out again, so I went back in. We had a psychic understanding. We had to protect our place and hold out.”


Knowing the risks, she insisted on going back in. To get through it together. They had to be together to win.


▲ The time spent at the Korea Expressway Corporation’s Gimcheon headquarters weren’t all trying and tearful. The smiling faces of the tollgate workers in a commemorative photo.  ©The Korean Democracy and Federacy Workers’ Union’s Tollgate Branch


Dubbed the “naked protests” by the media, the demonstrations that day became a part of the larger fight to win. It was a strategy they chose to keep from losing, but as with all strategies, it will continue to be uated and examined from all different perspectives. Furthermore, reporters need to reuate the way that they reported and interpreted the events of that day’s protest.


When people see the protests from that day, they are disgusted, mock the bodies of middle-aged women, propagandize the protest as a warzone, or describe the women as “labor fighters” willing to martyr themselves for the cause. A society that sees women through this lens asks, “Did they have to take it that far?”


That question is no different from the one the tollgate workers have been hearing: “Why do women fight so hard?” The tollgate workers have always answered, “Because we want to win.”


They haven’t given up, not even for one moment. “We haven’t lost yet.” After everything they’ve been through, would they say they’re proud of themselves?


“We have pride in our hearts. We’re going to get through it. I don’t have much strength, but I’m going to stay with my colleagues. I’ll keep my chin up every day, and as time goes on, I’m going to try to grow as much as I can.”


As workers, the women boldly created their own place. As fighting women, they persevered and changed the way they saw themselves. Knowing this, how will we choose to remember the fight of the tollgate workers?


*The quotes in the text are from interviews conducted with toll collectors from Maesong, Samcheok, Seoansan, Songtan, Anseong, Wonju, and Cheongju. Interviews and recording by: Tollgate Recording Team (Narang, Sia, and Heejeong)


By Hee Jeong

Translated by Stella Chung


*Original Article: http://ildaro.com/8706


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English-language blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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