Construction Is Not Only Men’s Work

Hidden Labor Series: The Experiences of Kim Kyung-shin, a Tower Crane Operator

Byun Jung-yoon 2021-02-19

※ As a co-organized project with the Women Workers’ Writings Association, Ilda is featuring interviews with women whose work deserves a closer look. This Hidden Labor Series is published with the support of the Korea Press Promotion Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund. -Editors


The neighborhood’s old apartment complex is torn down in a flash and the time it takes for a new building to come up is barely longer. As city blocks are overtaken by construction, buildings demolished only for new ones to take their place, the back streets become a fracas of workers, dust, and noise. The busy turnover of apartments and office buildings brings to mind an eager youth’s Lego set. Within this scene of construction and destruction, most of the workers are men. 


▲ While the construction industry is largely perceived of as a “male industry,” there are more than 50,000 women working at construction sites, and the number is increasing day by day.   ©Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions


There is a strong perception that the construction industry is male-dominated and hierarchical and that its organizational culture is vertical. However, there are women working at construction sites, and their numbers are on the rise. According to the National Statistical Office’s November 2018 report on temporary and daily workers in the construction industry, the number of female workers more than doubled from 27,895 in 2014 to 57,583 in 2016. Adding those female workers not reported in this survey raises these numbers even higher.


However, the pervasive perception is that female workers at construction sites are doing supportive or secondary work. That there are only a few women who work at construction sites with professional skills or certifications. And that the heavy machinery of the tower crane is the exclusive domain of male workers.


As I prepared to meet a female tower crane operator, I was unsure what to expect. A woman who works with heavy equipment on par with men in a male-dominated, hierarchical construction site? Just thinking about it was cool. For one thing, I was curious to know what male workers would think of women who operate tower cranes.


Out of work when the project is completed...The union is formed, unemployment benefits won


Tower crane operator Kim Kyung-shin hollered out as she walked into the office. First of all, I was surprised at her strapping height of 174 centimeters (5’ 8.5”) and even more surprised she was only in her early 40s. Refreshingly straightforward and easy to talk to, Kim spoke openly about how surprising her path has been, given her gender, youth, and inexperience when she started out.


“It was 2001, so it’ll be 20 years next year. I’ve been working [the cranes] since I was 23. I wasn’t originally interested in tower cranes, but there was a crane standing in front of my previous workplace. I started because the tower crane is a type of heavy construction equipment. I didn’t make much money back then. And it was in the late part of the IMF financial crisis. [Now] there’s no wage difference between men and women. But I’m a non-regular contract worker with a fixed working period. I work until the project is over.”


She was a soldier before she started working atop cranes. After three years in the military, she was discharged as a sergeant. When asked what led her to become a soldier, she said she took the exam after graduating from high school and that it was nothing special.


“When it comes to the military and to tower cranes, people are surprised to see women in these positions since they don’t usually hear about that. But there’s nothing too surprising about it. I wasn’t really interested in the jobs that women usually go into after graduating high school.”


Thanks to her physical strength, military training was not difficult. Though the rigid military atmosphere and the feeling of being locked up weren’t easy, it was home for those in the military, so she adjusted with time. To be sure, the hierarchical culture was strong, but she grew to find the clear-cut structure agreeable. Perhaps this helps explain why she was well suited to work at construction sites and the trade union.


▲ I’m a woman and I’m a tower crane operator! Kim Kyung-shin, who has operated tower cranes for 20 years since the age of 23.   © Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions


After she was discharged from the military, she earned her license attending a tower crane academy for three months and was hired at a construction site right away. As many operators have 30 years of experience, she said her 20-year career is not short, but also not very long.


“The site we’re working on is a redevelopment area. The contractor is Hyundai Engineering & Construction, and they subcontract the tower crane rental company. The contractor signs the contract with the crane rental company to get the tower crane equipment. I’m employed by the crane rental company as a contract worker. The length of construction varies depending on the height of the building, but the average is about ten months a year. The problem is that once the ten months is over, you’re out of work again. A short wait is three months, a long one six.”


Once a project is completed, she is unemployed until she is sent to a new site. Previously, she would have never dreamed of unemployment benefits during this time between projects. But upon the establishment of the trade union, she started receiving unemployment benefits during these waiting periods. Witnessing this change, she knows better than anyone the need for trade unions. Between projects, she stays active in the trade union, currently serving as vice chair of the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions.


“You have to be strong to get the right to be hired. As the power [of the union] has increased, the right to work has also increased, as has the number of union members. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions alone has about 2,500 members, 100 of whom are women.”


Need to go to the bathroom? Gotta hold it


Currently, Kim Kyung-shin is the only female worker at her construction site. She starts work at 7 a.m. and clocks out at 5 p.m. Once atop the tower crane, she stays there until her lunchtime at 11:30.


“As far as going to the bathroom, I hold it until lunch. There are 50 to 200 workers working under each tower, and it doesn’t go well if no one’s working the crane. So I don’t drink any water. As long as I don’t have an upset stomach, I can handle it. Keep in mind, it takes 30 minutes to go down and come back up. So if you do go down from the tower, you’ve gotta sprint all the way to the bathroom. Once a building is up to the 10th and 20th floors, they put a metal drum type of thing out for the men. Just a toilet with a funnel—a urinal. But there’s no place for women to urinate at all. There’s no elevator, so we have to go up and down 10 or 20 flights of stairs to use the bathroom. It takes up a lot of time. And then you worry about the team and section leaders’ reactions. All this is why the female construction workers are holding it in.”


For 20 years, restrooms—along with changing rooms and shower rooms—have not been provided to female workers. Perhaps thanks to the trade union’s persistent efforts, on July 17 of this year, the Ministry of Employment and Labor released the “Guidelines for Workplace Bathroom and Washroom Facilities.” It is a new set of regulations which applies to construction projects over 100 million won (about 85,000 USD), including the installation of toilets and changing rooms. Most significantly it calls for both men and women’s separate bathrooms, washrooms, and changing rooms. It also advises keeping the distance from the work site to the bathroom under 100 meters.


There have been related laws in the past, but as they lacked detail, they were not followed well. With 10 to 20 workers per team on a construction site, that makes for about one woman on a team. In the past, a single space for men and women would be used for changing clothes before and after work and resting after lunch. In practice, however, women could hardly use these spaces. Only if female workers were lucky enough to have a considerate team leader who would furnish a partition in these spaces could their health and personal rights be met.


Industrial death rates still among the highest of OECD countries


Despite 20 years of experience, Kim can still be unnerved by a shaky tower crane. Though fine while sitting or looking into the distance, once you stand you can feel the swaying to the point of motion sickness, which some people in fact experience. Until you descend from the tower crane it is solitary job, so mistakes are out of the question.


“The crane usually carries from 500 kilograms to four or five tons of stuff. Even a slight bump could cause a devastating injury. There have been times when someone walks into the work radius of an excavator—or if there is no one guiding it—and the person is hit. When you’re working the crane, you have to have a signal number for your load to be tied, you’ve got to have a rigger, and you’ve got to have someone to receive it. In this way workers need to secure the loads, hoist them, and take them off, so chances of an accident are high. The work can be very tense.”


▲ Construction is an industry of frequent accidents. Fatalities are common. Trade unions have called for a safe working environment, including women’s bathrooms and rest areas.   ©Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions

Construction is an industry in which serious accidents are not uncommon. Injury is a problem, but the tally of worksite fatalities is actually higher. If an industrial accident occurs at a construction site, the prevailing attitude is to cover it up. In most cases, the construction company illegally negotiates compensation directly with the injured worker, and only when people die do they properly report the incident to the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency and follow industrial accident insurance laws. Whether it’s a fall due to uninstalled safety fencing, getting hit by materials falling from the crane mid-transport, or getting run into by a forklift or cement mixer, accidents at construction sites are startlingly common.


Korea has never seen its construction industry worksite fatality rate fall below the uppermost rates of OECD countries. A total of 964 workers died in industrial accidents in 2017 and 971 in 2018. Among them, death from a fall accounted for half. For now, this lamentable distinction as “republic of the industrial accident” may prove hard to shake.


Just twenty years ago, construction work was called nogada[A Japanese-derived term for manual labor] and meant working Sundays, having no holidays, arriving to the site before dawn and leaving after sunset. Breaking for one day a month. In twenty years’ time the trade union work has done a great deal to improve labor conditions. The new generation of workers considers it important to take a day off when the rest of the country does. Wages have risen. Welfare benefits as well as special allowances are also being paid.


Along with sufficient wages and welfare, the need for a clean working environment is being taken seriously. Perhaps this is why, after years of construction work being mainly done by people in their 50s, many relatively younger workers in their 40s are now coming to construction sites. Female workers also need a safe and clean environment. When women’s demands are met, more young workers can show up. At this point, ordering contractors to prepare—in accordance with the guidelines—bathrooms with running water, gender separated shower rooms, and female changing rooms is the work that remains.


Women are men’s assistants?


Ms. Kim said, “The number of female carpenters is increasing these days. There were very few at first, but now there are about 30 in Ansan alone. The Midwest Construction Division’s trade union runs a technical school. You work alongside men and get equal pay. Some folks sarcastically say, ‘That’s a lot of money for a woman, eh? Not a bad job.’ Obviously there’s a difference in strength between men and women. Female workers try to do the same thing, but there’s a difference. That’s why men don’t like it when women workers who can’t work the same way they do get paid the same. The team leaders who are union members are usually fine, but managers or section leaders in the specialized danjong subcontractors—that do work like rebar and concrete—don't like women carpenters.”


The trade union keeps such grumbling to a minimum, so the problem is usually not serious. Most women working in construction are in their 30s and 40s. The entry barrier to the construction site is still high for women in their 20s and early 30s. The biggest obstacles for women is the sense that construction is “men’s work” and the fact that no one tells them otherwise. Kim Kyung-shin considers the problem to be the failure of public institutions, the Ministry of Employment and Labor, and employment centers to discuss construction-related jobs at all. Often these places will connect women to childcare or call center work, further perpetuating a gendered division of labor.


Though construction work is difficult, it is necessary to inform women about opportunities in construction and make available the path toward training. This option should be accessible and up to each individual. When gender equality education takes place in daily life and the perception that jobs are not inherently for men or women increases, wrongheaded beliefs—such as the acceptability of paying women less or that women are men’s assistants—will be challenged.


“In the case of tower cranes, people can’t ignore them because they have to move their materials in order to work. But 20 years ago, I would hear from the captains that they couldn’t work knowing a woman was operating the crane, to change the crane driver. When you’re on the work site, you’d hear people ask, ‘Do you have a boyfriend, are you married, what does your husband do, does he work on the site too?’ Even now, I’m sure women who are down on the site are hearing it every day. On the work site, you have to follow the section leader. And then, as a joke, they’ll say, ‘Hey let me ask you out, let’s go on a date.’”


Kim would ignore such pestering or hit back with stronger jokes. Most women working at construction sites can be divided into two groups: masculine or exaggeratedly feminine. In the former case, these are usually women confident in their skills and they can readily fight back. On the other hand, if a worker’s skills are lacking or she is temp labor she tends to be more “feminine.” She’ll prepare snacks or pack lunches to bring to the other workers and go to the team dinner to entertain. She may fear that if she doesn’t do these things, she will lose her job.


Illegally employed foreign female workers have the added risk of going without pay or being deported. Discrimination from the contractor toward the subcontractors is severe, and women are also discriminated against within the subcontracting company. On top of this, foreign female workers are not able to speak out regarding work conditions.


Kim Kyung-shin provides sexual harassment prevention education to union members. According to the Construction Workers’ Union Code, a member elected to union leadership is required to complete gender equality education. Kim Kyung-shin and her union members are working step by step to make the construction site a safe and equal work environment. © Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions


Hope growing for a more secure and equal construction site


Over the past 20 years, Kim Kyung-shin has seen the urgent need for gender equality and sexual harassment prevention education. She completed instructor training and is teaching classes. As these classes target members of the union, not the public, her position as vice chair of the union plays an important role. She also has the advantage of providing vivid examples from her years of experience on the worksite. For these reasons, the effectiveness of her class is double that of professional instructors.


“At first, everyone hates it. They see me as bound to attack them. They don’t know why they need to take sexual harassment prevention training. I know the situation in the field, so I usually teach by example. It’s much more direct than going by the law or using hypothetical stories.”


Following union code, there is a clause that requires that an election be rescinded should the elected member fail to complete gender equality education within a certain period of time. Men are often elected as union leaders, so their mindsets can be affected through this compulsory education. Setting an example from the top and working downward, it is a change for the better.


During the summer heat and winter frost, construction workers may only clock in 10 days in a month. However, when the weather is pleasantly cool—while the rest of the country is going on weekend or day trips—the construction profession is in full swing, taking advantage of the favorable temperatures. Better working conditions for female workers means better overall working conditions at construction sites.


Atop the tower crane, with a view from which humanity below appears insignificant, Ms. Kim marvels at the distant Gwanak and Bukhansan mountains. Her gaze shifts easily from the earth to sky and back to the earth, and she is thankful for the slow but certain difference that her activities are making. These activities, humble yet focused on changing reality, are the stepping stones toward building a bright world.


Seosan Daesa said, “Don’t go recklessly when you walk in a snow-covered field. The footprints I walked today will guide the person behind me.” Ms. Kim takes it lightly, but she is a guiding light for the many workers who will follow her—like those who, waking to find the road covered in snow, are thankful for the tracks left by someone at dawn. As tower crane operator and union leader, Kim Kyung-shin has spent 20 years building hope with her fellow workers.  May this hope continue to spark light at the construction site.


By Byun Jung-yoon

Translated by Taylor Kennedy

Published: September 18, 2019


* Original Article:


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