Going to Meet History

(Labor History Tour Participants with Shin Soon-ae in front of Jeon Tae-il’s statue at Peace Market)

(Labor History Tour Participants with Shin Soon-ae in front of Jeon Tae-il’s statue at Peace Market)

By Kayleigh Kleiva

Recently, I joined the ISC’s Labor History Tour, and felt lucky that I could learn and connect to this city and country through living history. Having taught English in Jeollabuk-do before moving to Seoul, it can feel daunting to foster a sense of connectivity to a massive hive of grey high rises compared to a more countryside experience. Being part of a labour history tour introduced me to the city’s activists who are dedicated to achieving a society with better conditions for its workers. Learning about those achievements and struggles in a personal setting has changed the way I see my place here.

Starting off the cold morning, our group headed to a stretch of plastic tenting near Gyeongbokgung Station. We fumbled into a small opening between the sheets of plastic atmosphere warmed by a large space heater, then removed our shoes before sitting with president Cho Chang-ik of the Korean Teachers Union. A sticker featuring a Korean version of Rosie the Riveter was stuck on the back of a faded grey folding chair. Beyond the chair was a table stacked with snacks in mismatched containers, almonds in chocolate boxes, and tea bags in coffee tins—all the essential pick-me-ups for a camp-out. By their count, we sat in a 167-day-old rally by the presidential residence, seeking to regain official and legal recognition of the KTU. Having formed under the military regime in 1989, the union has been seeking a democratic reform of the national education system, consideration of social issues, and respect of labor rights. The union was finally able to enjoy legal recognition in 1999 after South Korea had joined the OECD, and changed its domestic law to allow teachers to form associations. In 2013, Park Geun-hye’s administration outlawed the union when it did not agree to expel its members that had recently been fired, after increased oppression from the government.

The KTU president himself, with a jolly and charming allure smiling behind a manicured white beard, has been dedicated to the cause since losing his teaching position. To learn that he had been a geography teacher underscored one of the more relatable shortcomings of the Korean education system. As a teacher, I had been warned of Korean students’ notoriously poor geography knowledge, yet it is still surprising to hear students struggle to place other countries in the world. Perhaps this is not considered an essential area of knowledge in an education system that prioritizes test scores over worldly knowledge. I wondered how much else had been taken from students when hundreds of teachers were fired under Park Geun-hye’s crack-down. It was hard to imagine his smiling face sadly saying goodbye to his students. It was harder to imagine his uncle-esque spirit in a smaller frame, after learning of his hunger strikes.

A passing police officer asked about our presence, as it was probably an unexpected sight to see a group of foreigners hosted within the KTU’s protest space. Indeed, it was an uncomfortable realization that my work as an English teacher at a private academy, catering to the wealthiest children in Seoul, is part of the problem of competition that the union would like to see resolved.  Like many other foreigners teaching English to children at private academies in Korea, I benefit from the political, legal, and social culture of educational inequality. I have employment opportunities built upon a market of parents, who are willing to pay for a product which guarantees that their children will pass those oh-so-defining university entrance exams. When asked about the relationship between academy teachers and public educators, the KTU president implied that academy teachers haven’t raised any labor issues with them, but that solidarity could be welcomed. This was surprising for someone like me, whose consumption of social media only reflected the current labor issues of those working as teachers at private academies. Unpaid overtime, withheld housing deposits, uncovered medical insurance, sexual harassment and racial discrimination are only a few of the common complaints of foreign teachers in Korea.  However, these issues focus on the teachers, and usually don’t concern the well-being of the children we teach. Meeting with the KTU made me re-examine my role within Korean education, wondering what I’m actually offering to students. It made me question how I could simultaneously keep my position and my concern for workers’ rights.

I had been interested in sustainable consumer practices since long before coming to Korea. I care about where I spend my money, choosing street markets over super markets as often as I can to honor the local people producing and selling the food I eat. I also try to avoid buying from fast fashion companies to avoid supporting industries that exploit factory workers. When I first arrived in Korea, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many domestically-made products I could choose from. I assumed that domestic goods had a lower chance of having been made in unethical factory conditions. I was vaguely aware of a time when goods made in Korea would have likely been made under poor conditions. As our tour continued, I learned just how poor it was for factory workers of the industrialization period.   

When we met intimately with Shin Soon-aeh in a second-floor café veiled in a decades-old aroma of more lenient smoking and plumbing regulations, it was as if the room folded us back into the era in which her stories have been preserved. A woman sitting in the back of the café smiled at me. I wondered how long she’d been coming here. I noticed Sin Su-eh’s outfit right away. Typically cute in the Korean old lady fashion, she wore a deep purple shirt under her down vest, accented with a complementary flower-print scarf. Occasionally, she accentuated her speech with hand gestures, her tendons and veins curving her robust fingers around the memories she shared with us. I felt tied to her through textiles in more ways than one. I savored the way she pierced me with her eyes as she told us her stories. I held back tears as she recalled that she had only been referred to by her sewing machine number, until she started attending primary school provided by the labor union. The market, as it stands today, is crowded enough by vendors standing amongst the piles of clothing, and to think of those spaces and their short attics being filled with numbers of sewing machines is a suffocating thought.

I had tried to visit the market before on a national holiday, and was disappointed to find it closed. I had crossed the bridge and absentmindedly passed the Jeon Tae-il statue. I had even walked through the grilled fish alley and hadn’t noticed the contraptions that Sin Su-eh later pointed out to us, after explaining the way the workers carried loads of textile goods on their backs. Those contraptions are still there, flanked by old men a bit older than Sin Su-eh. I learned that she is originally from Jeollabuk-do, and I imagined how different the city and the countryside had been when she was young. When we rounded a corner, the smiling woman from the café appeared and nodded familiarly at me. Over lunch, Sin Su-eh told us that a friend, who still works as a seamstress, had made the floral scarf she wore. She removed it, and shared our admiration for it, as she turned it over in her strong but gentle hands, running her fingers respectfully over the seams. Ten years ago she began her journey towards earning her Master’s degree, and published a book about her experiences as a young labor activist. We admired her work ethic in more ways than one.

We ended our tour at the Guro Industrial Complex unaccompanied by labor activists. A choppy video played on the upper floor, bordered by crowded wall panels depicting facts, figures, and timelines of labor factoids. Set to a mid-century government propaganda soundtrack, benign images of women workers flowed before our eyes. I read the subtitles  telling sugar-coated stories of a successful development period that employed thousands. There were no interviews, only long shots of workers with their heads down and uniforms on. On the lower floor we could tour the residential spaces that once belonged to the female factory workers.These tiny rooms had hosted two or three workers at a time, many of whom also tried to complete higher education while working at the factories.  Unblemished wallpaper and unscuffed floors raised my eyebrows as I found the “preservations” unrealistic. Even the large single-tenant housing, provided by English teaching jobs, fail to provide scuff-free (or mold-free) apartments. The white plaster figure squatting on display couldn’t answer my questions about what life was really like there. A small wing adorned with photographs of factory worker history offered more personality than the immaculately staged living quarters.

One particular photo of two seated women, hunching in their uniforms with half-raised fists and candid facial expressions, gave me a taste of what I was missing. I could almost hear their gossip about their roommates, feel their tone regarding solidarity, and sense the fatigue in their shoulders. Their gaze seemed quizzical, as if to scoff, “You’re not buying this rosy picture of labor history, are you?” I wasn’t. The old convenience shop beside the complex was boxed in by pleasant wood and glass panel sliding doors. We plucked some old games from the shelves, and dabbled in some delightful little games. I wondered what the women in the photograph would have enjoyed in this shop.

Visiting these spaces of labor history and activism showed me the power of meeting with activists themselves. Sitting face to face with them authenticates history in ways that facts and figures cannot. They showed me that there is still work to be done, and their gaze made me question whether I help or hinder the cause. I now recognize the relationship between my earning and spending money in Korea, and the labor issues it intersects with. Recognizing this privilege prompts me to find ways to take action and take responsibility for making a positive impact in Korean society. I have the exceptional honor of working with young students, and perhaps the opportunity to sow some small seeds for change.