This International Women’s Day, Women Want a Strike, Not Flowers
Cleaners, care workers, gas-meter readers, and hotel workers propose a women’s strike
Jo-Han Jin-hui (Banda)   |   2024-03-25

“Why are cleaners’ labor struggles always so difficult?”


Someone said this two years ago, when the cleaning staff of Duksung Women's University had already been fighting for a year to win a 400-won [30-cent USD] raise in their hourly pay and improved breakrooms. Other Bodies [Dareunmomdeul], the organization I belonged to, had proposed forming and was active in the “Feminist  Alliance Supporting the Duksung Women’s University Cleaning Staff’s Struggle.” The alliance comprised feminists and feminist organizations including those based near the university, and it was at one of our meetings that someone made this remark as a complaint.


Everyone who was there knew exactly what the problem was: the fact that cleaning work is done almost exclusively by middle-aged women means that cleaners are always among the first to be made non-permanent [bijeongyujik] workers during restructuring, their pay is kept at the minimum wage, and their work is undervalued by society. Perhaps worst of all, the workers themselves feel ashamed of their profession and will even hide the fact that they are cleaning workers. Clearly, there are many issues that need to be resolved.


▲ Duksung Women’s University cleaning staff and members of the Feminist Alliance Supporting the Duksung Women’s University Cleaning Staff’s Struggle meet at the sit-in site. (Photo provided by the Public Transport Workers' Union, Seoul Branch


And it was at a meeting between the Duksung Women’s University cleaning staff and the feminist alliance that someone proposed organizing a women’s strike in Korea like the one that Iceland had held. It was a proposal to move away from a feminism that wants more female CEOs and toward one that liberates women workers, and to create a feminist society that transcends our government, with its claims there is no systemic gender discrimination.


With the long-term goal of organizing a women's strike, we joined with several other organizations to hold the 2023 "Women Non-permanent Worker Convention to Open the March 8 Women's Strike.” The event was attended by not just cleaners but also care workers, gas meter readers, hotel workers and others, who denounced the sexual discrimination and harassment they face in the workplace, as well as the reality that, as women, they are more likely to be laid off.


‘Quit so your husband can stay’: the destabilization of women’s work after the Asian financial crisis


Women’s being laid off more frequently has been the reality for a long time, but the practice became somewhat more systemized in the 1990s. The starting point for this was the Asian financial crisis that nearly destroyed Korea in 1997. When, in exchange for relief loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Korea was forced to undergo structural reforms, the cold wind of layoffs reached every corner of society. The government at the time ordered government-affiliated organizations and public enterprises to reduce their workforces by 20%. And Nonghyup Bank made its infamous decision to target the female halves of on-staff married couples for layoffs.


In this incident, Nonghyup pushed for ‘voluntary’ resignations among its female employees married to men also employed by the company. The women were told that if they did not agree to resign, their husbands would be placed on a [presumably unpaid] rotational leave of absence and that those on a rotational leave of absence would be the first to be laid off during a second round of restructuring. As a result, in 1998, out of the 762 married couples employed by the bank, one spouse in each of 752 couples resigned, and in 91.5% of cases, that spouse was the woman. Afterwards, around 66% of those women were re-hired as contract workers on yearlong contracts, where they were paid only about half of permanent workers’ wages.


During the lawsuit for unfair termination brought by the Nonghyup couples, the company emphasized that the husbands’ job stability was achieved through the wives’ ‘voluntary’ resignation, saying that if the wives hadn’t left, their husbands might have had to be laid off. This is a typical patriarchal attitude that sets a male breadwinner as the standard, and at the time, it served as a basis for justifying preferential dismissal of women or making women into non-permanent workers.


(Note: The “IMF crisis,” as it’s known in Korea, was an example of a capitalism-created crisis being shifted onto workers, and women in particular were used as airbags. Businesses told women, “You’re not married, so just get yourself a husband,” “You’re married, so your husband will support you,” “You and your husband both work here, so you should leave,” “You’ve taken childcare leave, so you should go back home to your kid.” The layoff blade was pointed first at women. According to data from the Presidential Commission on Women's Affairs at the time, the people who lost their jobs in high numbers due to the crisis were white-collar women in their twenties working at businesses with 300 or more employees. Despite all this, the social mood at the time, only concerned with men being laid off, was busy comforting “fathers with bowed heads.” See “20 Years after the Asian Financial Crisis, Remembering the Women Who Lost their Jobs.” https://ildaro.com/8952)


And now, in the 2020s, we have not progressed much past the society that focused on comforting “fathers with bowed heads.” The current government is busy comforting middle-aged men while suicide skyrockets among middle-aged women, who face unstable employment and low pay in a sexist society.


▲ Participants in the “Women Non-permanent Worker Convention to Open the March 8 Women's Strike,” held on March 8, 2023, call for “a living wage for cleaning workers”. (Photo provided by the Public Transport Workers' Union, Seoul Branch)     


The union-business ‘men’s alliance’ that used female laborers as sacrificial lambs


During the financial crisis of the 1990s, it wasn’t just the government and capital that were setting women workers back. The 2001 documentary Women Laborers’ Video Report: Food, Flowers, Lambs (directed by Im In-ae and Seo Eun-ju) shocked civil society with its tale of the Hyundai Motors union’s acceptance of restructuring and the three-year labor struggle of 144 female cafeteria workers who were laid off from their permanent positions in that process and re-hired as subcontracted non-permanent workers.


When first faced with restructuring, the Hyundai Motors union at the company’s Ulsan location held a 36-day general strike. The cafeteria workers were on the front line of the strike, banging pots and pans and protesting as fiercely as anyone. They also made meals for their fellow striking laborers. The union praised the cafeteria workers as “the strike’s flowers.” But in the end, Hyundai and its union struck a deal that prevented layoffs of male workers by sacrificing every single female cafeteria worker. What should we call this? Perhaps a ‘men’s alliance’ that transcends class? After the layoffs, the labor union took over operation of the cafeteria as a subcontractor and rehired the women as non-permanent workers who received about 60% of their former wage and were made to perform more intense labor.


During the time when Food, Flowers, Lambs was being screened passionately and provoking rage and tears, I was in charge of the women’s labor section of a women’s organization. I saw how, as if they were competing to set back women in the workplace, countless businesses were laying off women first, laying off women because of pregnancy or childbirth, or converting women’s jobs to non-permanent. While fighting these issues, there were those even among our comrades in the labor movement who sometimes looked disapprovingly on our efforts, asking, “Then should men be laid off, even though they’re the heads of families?”


After the documentary was released, though, awareness deepened of the problem of the labor movement’s focus on male permanent workers, the number of women who had been part of that movement but were now realizing that they were feminists increased, and slow but clear changes could be seen.


And 10 years ago, I embraced my sense of shame and said this at a public forum: “Starting with the IMF [crisis] in the 1990s, women-first layoffs and the destabilization of women’s employment increased explosively. But—is it possible that our failure as feminists to more strongly resist the concentrated attacks on female workers at the time is what has made the state of women’s employment so unstable in the 2000s?”  


Iceland, home of the women’s strike, resolved an IMF crisis differently from Korea


Not all countries that have received IMF bailouts have placed the responsibility for their survival on the relatively weak through approaches like prioritizing layoffs of women. When Iceland received an IMF bailout in 2008 and was required to make structural reforms, it actually carried out structural reforms to increase gender equality, such as establishing minimum quotas for women in positions of power in business and government. Above all, rather than passing on the crisis created by capital to individuals through layoffs and making jobs less stable, as in Korea, it made the unusual decision to bankrupt its own bank. The responsibility for the crisis was placed squarely on creditors.


And in 2009, the year after it received the IMF bailout, Iceland elected its first female and openly gay prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, and the proportion of female lawmakers also increased thereafter. In a social crisis, how was it possible to attempt to reform the labor market fairly by breaking the glass ceiling rather than by using women and other disadvantaged people as airbags?


On October 24, 1975, Iceland became home to the world's first women's general strike, called “Women’s Day Off.” Ninety percent of all women participated, not only the wage earners—full-time housewives stopped working at home. Flights were canceled, post offices stopped service, and schools closed. Men were busy buying simple foods like sausages and hot dogs to feed their children. The men who had a hard time with the absence of women’s labor called this day “the long Friday.” The women's general strike was a one-day event that showed all of society how much work women were doing.


The right to strike is the fundamental and most powerful right that workers have to protect themselves. Therefore, in democratic countries, workers are guaranteed this right by law in order to protect their negotiating power and other labor rights. Iceland achieved women's suffrage as early as 1915, and was inspired to plan the women's general strike by the UN’s designation of 1975 as “International Women's Year.”


Thanks to the massive success of the “Women’s Day Off,” women gained negotiating power to fight against gender-discriminatory structures. In the following year, 1976, the country’s National Assembly passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, and although there is no legally-mandated quota for the National Assembly, women have come to make up nearly half of its members. Today, Iceland has become one of the countries with the highest gender equality index in the world.


International Women’s Day originated in a strike by women workers of the world


International Women's Day, March 8th, is approaching again this year. The day first originated from female workers’ strikes in the United States, France, and Canada over 100 years ago. It is also known that Clara Zetkin, a German feminist and labor activist, proposed creating an International Women's Day at the International Women Workers' Congress in 1910. So holding a women’s strike on March 8th  would be most consistent with the purpose of International Women’s Day in the first place.


▲ At the “Women Non-permanent Worker Convention to Open the March 8 Women's Strike,” held on March 8, 2023, Other Bodies activists hold signs reading, “Women workers change the world. Feminists create revolution,” and “Through job stability for care workers, let’s create a care-centric society. Non-permanent work OUT! Direct employment OK!” (Photo by Other Bodies)

In Korea, International Women's Day is celebrated in many ways. Feminists from various quarters, led by the Korean Federation of Women's Organizations, have raised their voices in public squares, and labor movement groups have taken the lead in holding rallies of female workers. On the other hand, businesses use International Women's Day to engage in marketing to sell various products. Meanwhile, some companies in China give their female employees a half-day off, and in Russia, it is said that the day tends to be perceived as one for giving gifts to women, with flower sales doubling.


I haven't looked into every country’s way of celebrating for International Women's Day, but it does seems that the more severe gender inequality is in a country, the more likely it is for the day there to be a formality focused on congratulating women and giving them gifts and flowers, rather than an opportunity for raising voices against inequality.


In contrast, Iceland is considered to be the country with the highest gender equality index, but each year on October 24, the anniversary of the first women's general strike in 1975, women there continue to raise their voices to say that complete equality has not yet been achieved, and strikes both large and small are still held. On October 24, 2016, in protest of the 15% gender wage gap (Korea's gender wage gap in that year was 36.7%, and Korea ranked 105th in gender equality as compiled by the World Economic Forum), women went on strike again. In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to implement an ‘Equal Work Equal Pay Certification Act’. If an employer has more than 25 workers, it must prove and receive certification of the fact that gender does not factor into any wage gaps between its employees. Failure to obtain that certification results in a fine. (In Korea, equal pay for equal work is mandated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act for Men and Women, but it is not upheld in practice.)


Through the Gangnam Station murder incident, the ‘black protests’ demanding the legalization of abortion, and the #MeToo political situation, women in Korean society have come to realize this together over the past 10 years: silence cannot protect us, and we can only win our rights by speaking out, coming to the public square, and fighting.


However, on the other hand, we must clearly recognize that there are a significant number of women who do not have the right to strike. Many female workers are at small businesses or have unstable employment, so it is difficult for them to participate in strikes, and many have a business license but are essentially freelancers, doing work through gig platforms. There are women who clean and do deliveries for their husband's laundromat but are not paid or recognized as workers, and there are full-time housewives who work tirelessly all day but are not respected for the value of their labor. Some people find it difficult to go out to public events because they are stuck at home caring for sick family members.


Even if we cannot gather on March 8th and shout “Women’s strike!” together, we propose that we make our labor visible by stopping it. Let’s make this society sense the value and meaning of the labor we do. Let's start with both blood-related and non-blood family members who share our living space, then ask the workplace, society, and the country: If women’s labor disappears, what will happen to the home, to society, to the nation, and to the world?’


During the “Women Non-permanent Worker Convention to Open the March 8 Women's Strike” of 2023, I carried a picket sign reading, “Women workers change the world. Feminists create revolution.” This coming March 8th, through feminists of all genders stopping work in their respective positions or helping others to stop, let's create a revolution that starts from our small daily lives.


About the Author: Jo-Han Jin-hui (Banda) is an activist with Other Bodies. She published the book I’m Not Sorry for Being Sick, based on her Ilda series “Banda’s Story of Surviving Illness,” and co-wrote A Life-Changing Feminism Classroom and A World that Care Takes Care Of.


[Translated by Marilyn Hook]

*Original article: https://ildaro.com/9829 Published Feb. 4, 2024


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

기사입력 : 2024-03-25

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