The Life of a Thirteen-year-old Factory Girl: A Woman Worker Writes Her Story

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In the 1970s, when Korea’s rapid economic development was in progress, Shin Soonae started working in a factory at the age of 13. Then, she joined the Cheong-gye trade union and became active in the labor movement. Nowadays, she works as a counselor for a youth counseling center named Youth Taktinnaeil (“Youth have Bright Futures”).  She also meets with former comrades of the ‘70s labor movement, and recently completed the full course of her formal education, from elementary to graduate school.

The ISC’s  General Secretary Jeongeun Hwang met with Shin, who serves as one of the organization’s advisors, to learn about her book, ”The Life of a Thirteen-year-old Factory Girl: A Woman Worker Writes Her Story,” which was published recently.

To explain why she published the book, Shin first began by explaining why started to study again in her 50s. “When I was working as a volunteer for the youth counseling center, I felt that I needed to study more. The teenagers there are the ones that need to be taken care of, but society just labels them as “juvenile delinquents” and writes them off. While my life story gives them inspiration, I thought I should study more to provide even more help to them,” she said.

Shin started by taking an elementary school qualification exam in 2003 and began working her way up, having recently graduated from graduate school. While she was proud when she first sat in a college classroom, she also found it difficult and came to agree with the Korean saying, “There is a time in life for studying.” But she didn’t give up. “As I studied sociology, I learned there were only a few books on labor movement history. When people talk about the Peace Market in the ‘70s, they usually mention Jeon Tae-il, but there is almost nothing about female workers. So I decided to write my own story. Then, my advisor Kim Soohaeng proposed that I write my own story, first as a thesis paper, and then as a published book.”

The book shows how a poor girl who worked at a factory became a proud worker through a trade union. “I hope workers can be born again as proud workers through this book,” said Shin. “Proud workers know what their rights are and recognize their labor is valuable. But you cannot be a proud worker by yourself. You need unions.” “Ultimately,” she adds, “becoming a proud worker is not about doing great things: it is about realizing that you are working class, that a healthy society is where workers are respected, and that all value is produced by workers.”

Shin hopes that her work will inspire more workers to write their own stories. “Since workers know their stories best, I think that history can be changed with 30 books written by workers.” she says. “With the power of united workers, I hope to build a society where workers are proud of themselves, where the value of their labor is respected, and so are workers."

written by Jeongeun Hwang (General Secretary, ISC)