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High School Graduate Workers: We Are Not Deficient
“Women Who Fight, Win” Series: Boram and Seonghyeon, Founders of the High School Graduate Employee Association “Like the First Time”
Neurin   |   2023-09-10

We are documenting stories of women who fight. We met with female-identifying people who are striving to defend their current positions, leaving pre-determined places, working to create space for themselves and others, and, in a world where life itself is a struggle, fighting their own battles. The world treats their fights as small or insignificant, or simply ignores them. With respect for a fight that the world does not respect and coming from our own diverse areas of activism, study, and work, the 11 authors are publishing our interviews in a series. – Women Who Fight Recording Team

 

“Specialized High School Employee Selection, Registration Fee Sponsorship, High School Employment-Linked Incentives, Youth Employee Deduction”

 

During the winter ahead of high school admissions, from the front entrance to the classroom, middle schools are filled with posters and banners proclaiming the benefits of specialized [vocational] high schools. However, our society does not pay attention to youth who go down a path other than university. Beyond seeing occasional news about an accident or death of field trainees, there are many people who know nothing about specialized high schools.

 

How are workers from vocational education backgrounds, such as Meister high schools, specialized high schools, and vocational classes at regular schools, living their lives? We heard the stories of Boram and Seonghyeon, active members of “Like the First Time,” a high school graduate[1] employee association that they founded in 2016 while attending the same specialized high school.

 

▲ Left to right: Bok Seonghyeon and Kang Boram, founders of the high school graduate employee association “Like the First Time”. Photo taken at a 2017 baseball game.


Boram, an employee at an insurance company affiliated with a large corporation

 

“It was a big occasion at school. They put up a banner for me. I was really proud and happy. Now I was employed and could earn my own money. That’s how I felt.”

 

Boram’s sense of fulfillment at becoming an employee of an insurance company affiliated with a large corporation, which had made her the envy of all her peers, did not last long. In fact, according to her, as soon as she started at the company, she became acutely aware of her status. The position she had applied for was in the service occupation category for high school and technical college graduates. As a new employee in this category, Boram would have to wait eight years to become a manager and another six years to become an assistant director, and that was only if she got top scores in the personnel evaluation that takes place twice a year. On the other hand, university graduates could become managers right away.

 

“Even if we get promoted, we can’t go higher than assistant director. We could work there for 30 years and retire as an assistant director. And we have no authorization rights. No matter how long we work at the company, we aren’t able to get into a position with [real] responsibility, for which authorization rights are reserved. Even working for 30 years, processing receipts, processing insurance documents, collecting insurance on loans… there’s also a big difference in pay. The current starting salary for university graduates is 1.5 times higher. We need to get promoted to earn that much, but since we have a barrier to promotion… even the university graduates ask us how we can stand earning so little for the work that we’re doing.”

 

For high school or technical college graduates versus university graduates, there are differences when starting out in the workforce. The salaries or positions available to each upon first joining a company may vary. However, this determination of occupational status according to educational background does not end after hiring. No matter how long an employee works or how much of an effort they make, the gap never narrows. There is nothing more to pursue.

 

“When I first applied for a service position, since the job openings were posted according to occupation category, I expected there to be a difference. But I didn’t know it was this big. Even though I expected delayed promotion possibilities and a somewhat lower salary, I had no idea there would be such a huge difference and a glass ceiling.”

 

▲ “Like the First Time” activists are calling for an end to educational background discrimination in the labor market. Photo from their participation in the 2018 May Day labor demonstration.


The problem is not only about salary or promotion. Coworkers also view high school graduate employees with prejudice. Recently, there was a controversy over a post on the company’s bulletin board. A service occupation category employee of over ten years had made a post stating that their salary was too low after ten years, the treatment they received was worse than at other companies, their work experience at the company would not be recognized by other companies, and if employees wanted to leave, it was better to go sooner rather than later. The comments under the post were shocking.

 

“‘Your job is so easy here for that salary, what else do you want? You think you can find an hourly job making that kind of money?’ These kinds of degrading remarks kept coming. Normally, posts only get about three comments, but this one got over 200. It made us realize how our coworkers at the managerial level really see us. They just think of us as people who scan the receipts for their company card purchases. Even if we work here a long time, it’s considered as [mere] ‘physical experience’ [mulgyeongryeok], meaning we can’t be building up expertise because we’re just simple office assistants. I’ve been here five years now and I’m also wondering what it is that I’ve learned. When I’ve given my opinion, I’ve heard things like ‘Ms. Kang, who are you to be saying something like that?’ But would things be okay if we all just left? They hired us because they need us.”

 

With the situation being as it is, most of Boram’s colleagues have either left the company or are attending university at night. Those attending night school classes are also planning to change jobs once they obtain their graduation certificates. The current university admission track for specialized high school graduate employees is open to those who have worked at companies for more than three years after graduation, and most of the policies are conditioned on the students maintaining their jobs, so they must attend university while working. It is a formidable task. 

 

“My parents also often tell me to go to college. When I graduated, the career counselor said things like ‘You’re going into a big company, you’re employed, so you only need to work three years to get into college. Just go to night school and get your work experience at the same time.’ But even after the three years, I don’t see how it’s going to work. When there’s overtime every night until 9 p.m., how can I go to school at the same time?”

 

Seonghyeon, a post office finance security guard

 

At the post office where Seonghyeon works as a finance security guard, there is another kind of classification. When she first saw the job posting for a post office finance security guard, she just thought it meant she could work for the post office, a public institution. However, people working at the post office counter are full-time civil servants employed by the Postal Service Headquarters. The organization that Seonghyeon works for is the Post Office Facilities Management Group, a subsidiary of the Postal Service Headquarters. Inside of this organization, the staff is further divided into full-time head office employees and on-site, indefinite-term contract employees. Apart from the counter staff, most of the rest of the workers at a post office fall in this final category, including finance security guards, CCTV staff, and cleaning workers.

 

▲ Bok Seonghyeon works as a finance security guard at a post office. Rather than being employed by the Postal Service Headquarters, an anti-theft and risk prevention finance security guard is a subcontracted employee of the Post Office Facilities Management Group, a subsidiary of the Postal Service Headquarters.


Finance security guards have given customers information and helped other staff members with packing and other tasks. Despite this, the position of Seonghyeon’s current labor union is that, according to the “Security Business Act,” finance security guards should not have to perform any labor outside of security business.   

 

“Of course, if it gets really busy, we can help. Some people ask if we really can’t help with something, because it’s not like things are always dangerous enough to require security. But those kinds of tasks aren’t part of our job description. They’re not our job, but other staff members would still assign them without question. So when we said we would no longer be doing the extra tasks we had done up until then, people lost it. Well, if they want to assign us those tasks, then they can make us regular employees. When they give us minimum-wage employees work outside of security-related tasks without paying more for it, saying that we’re just ‘helping,’ then when we leave our posts to go to lunch, someone should have to take our place. But of course, they wouldn’t do that. ‘Helping’ means we should help each other.” 

 

For post offices that offer financial services, there is one finance security guard in charge of risk prevention and anti-theft. Risk prevention involves watching out for people who walk in acting suspiciously without using any services and kicking out violent people. There is also the task of standing watch during ATM transactions. However, in addition to this main work, finance security guards have also been assigned additional tasks such as answering customers’ questions, packaging, and cleaning. Seonghyeon says that some finance security guards have even had to receive customers at the counter.

 

“The post office sent [my subsidiary’s] head office a list of tasks that they would like me to be doing. The union said they weren’t allowed. [But t]o be honest, the post office supervisor and other staff members are all in one position, and I was on my own. If I didn’t do the additional tasks, I’d become an outcast, so I couldn’t help it. There are going to be many people who pay attention to how others see them and take on all kinds of extra work. Still, since we aren’t there to assist civil servants and our work belongs separately to the subsidiary, we’re not supposed to be assigned these other tasks.”

 

Seonghyeon is also the head of organizing for her union. In the Seoul region, most post offices have a finance security guard. She is working to build connections between finance security guards like herself who are working alone and raise awareness of their collective grievances, including the issue of assistance with additional tasks that is being currently discussed.

 

▲ Last November, “Like the First Time” activists attended a screening of the documentary Wangsimni Kim Jongbon (directed by Kim Jinyeol) and took a photo with the film’s protagonist Kim Jongbon, mother of martyr Kim Gwijeong.


“The difficult part? Actually, the biggest thing is the loneliness. During times when we are too busy to catch a break, dealing with people is hard, and then there will suddenly be a slow day. On those days, there’s no one to talk to about anything. The civil servants have their own network within the post office, so they know each other well. I’m just looking at my phone. It’s lonely. For example, if a rail breaks down and a delivery to Gyeonggi Province gets delayed. When something like that happens, the staff members talk [about it] amongst themselves, post up an official notice, and they don’t say a word to me. I’ll just look at the posted notice myself and think, ‘Oh, that’s the information that I’ll have to give out today.’ There are times when I feel like I’m on an island the whole day. So I want to make a network of finance security guards.”

 

Female security guards also experience gender discrimination. People ask, “How can a woman work in security and provide protection?” Some purposely harass them or try to start a fight. Some will suddenly touch the tear gas gun at their waist or call them “pretty.”

 

In Seonghyeon’s case, since her job was not classified by educational background, we wondered if she still faced discrimination based on that.

 

“People from the same facilities management team don’t ask if I went to university, but some of the civil servants do ask. When I say I didn’t go, they’ll say that since I’m still young, I should study and become a civil servant. There’s things like that. Overall, people think that those with only a high school education will have worse lives than those who went to university. I’ve already chosen my job and I’m living my life, so I don’t want to hear that I’m not doing enough. There’s still people who feel that high school graduates are living lesser lives than others, but they don’t see this as discrimination against us. They must be saying these things because they feel sorry for me, but frankly, there’s discrimination and prejudice behind this kind of thinking.”

 

Rather than getting a university diploma, let’s change our current situations

 

Boram and Seonghyeon started the high school graduate employee association “Like the First Time” in 2016. Each time the group met, there was so much to talk about, a whole day would pass unnoticed. After gathering stories related to work, the people they met at work, and the discrimination they faced, they have begun to deliberate about a youth policy. More experienced workers have also shared various important life and workplace tips, such as how to start a house subscription or a savings account, or how to use Excel and make a successful presentation. They have also gone drinking together and organized talks on things like dating and Tarot. During a recent talk on educational background discrimination and meritocracy, they discussed the kind of activities “Like the First Time” wanted to do in the future.

 

There are some members who have gone on to university after participating in the group. Boram’s coworkers also keep asking why she does not go to university. Why did these two decide to not attend university?

 

“Changing our identity to that of a university graduate does nothing for our current situations. Within the educational background hierarchy, the divisions don’t end at high school graduate, technical college graduate, or university graduate. University graduates are also divided into things like SKY and regional universities. So if I keep trying for this or that, there will be no end in sight.” (Seonghyeon)

 

▲ A list of rules for a 2019 MT [“membership training”, or group outing] for the high school graduate employee association “Like the First Time”.


“I think the same. At my company, even if I get a university diploma, they won’t just automatically change me to the university graduate classification. So for me, getting a university diploma is for changing jobs, but with a night school diploma, there’s no guarantee that I wouldn’t face inequality at another company. Anyway, if I go to night school to get the diploma, then I would just be perpetuating the same educational background discrimination system that I want to break down.” (Boram)

 

As someone who chose to become active in her labor union because she is a high school graduate worker, Seonghyeon sometimes has the following thoughts. If she was male, a regular [jeonggyujik] employee, or a university graduate, what would life be like? Would it be different from the present situation of having to fight over every petty and trivial thing?

 

“When I go out drinking, why do I have to feel anxious when I go to the bathroom? When I’m walking alone at night, I’m always tightly clutching my phone. To be honest, if I was a regular employee, employed by the head office, I wouldn’t have joined the union. But I realized that if I don’t make demands and fight for our rights, none of us irregular workers and high school graduates are going to survive. Women, irregular workers, youth, all of us at the bottom are suffering. So we have no choice but to fight.” (Seonghyeon)  

 

Boram also thinks that the most precarious and needy people cannot help but be the first to make a move for change. Rather than changing one’s own qualifications, it makes more sense to change the place where one is at. And since we are already in it together, we might as well change it together. These days, Boram is interviewing youth who have graduated from specialized high schools. Through these interviews, the members of ‘Like the First Time’ want to share with others the discussions and stories they have had together.

 

“We want to say that we aren’t deficient just because we only graduated high school. It’s not because we’re lacking something that we didn’t go to university. It’s our choice. We want to let others know that there’s no reason for us to receive discrimination for being high school graduate workers.”

 

[]Kang Boram and Bok Seonghyeon. These two say that the most precarious people cannot help but be the first to make a move for change, and if they do not fight for their rights, irregular workers, high school graduates, and women will continue to struggle.

 

Through my involvement in workers’ rights education, I became interested in youth without higher education. Every time I met with them, I was shaken. It was difficult to tell them that they could live well even without going to university, that there are diverse life paths, so let us live happily right now. It all just seemed like a lie. Then, I met Boram and Seonghyeon of “Like the First Time.”

 

In this world, there are people who constantly struggle to meet the various conditions demanded by society, and then there are others who fight to change the society that makes these unfair demands. These two people, who believe that change comes from how much we fight and walk forward, made me want to walk with them together. I hope to tell the teenagers I meet that there are people trying to change the world outside the classroom.

 

[Writer’s Bio] Neurin (Park Nae-hyeon). Active in labor and human rights. Trying to follow any direction that leads to the world getting better.

 

Original Article: https://ildaro.com/9273

Published Feb. 13, 2022

Translation by Anastasia Traynin

 

[1] Editor’s note: In this article, the term “high school graduate” refers only to people whose terminal level of education is a high school diploma.

 

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

기사입력 : 2023-09-10

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