180 South Korean Women Just Won a 12-Year Struggle to Fight Privatization and Get Their Jobs Back

Yi San August 6, 2018

After 12 years of campaigning against unjust layoffs, 180 female attendants at South Korea’s premier train service are getting their jobs back, having defeated a ham-handed privatization effort and corrupt political collusion. (Photo: Labor and the World)

After 12 years of cam­paigns and protests against unjust lay­offs, 180 female atten­dants at South Korea’s pre­mier train ser­vice are get­ting their jobs back. These tena­cious women work­ers defeat­ed a ham-hand­ed pri­va­ti­za­tion effort and cor­rupt polit­i­cal collusion.

The KTX is South Korea’s answer to bul­let trains. The country’s Rail­road Admin­is­tra­tion launched it in 2004 and select­ed 351 female atten­dants, all in their twen­ties, from a pool of 4,600 appli­cants who dreamed of becom­ing flight atten­dants on the ground.”

For these young col­lege grad­u­ates, the job seemed to com­bine the job secu­ri­ty of a civ­il ser­vant with the pay and dig­ni­ty of a flight atten­dant — one of the bet­ter jobs then avail­able to young women in South Korea.

A lengthy stand­off began in 2006 when the Korea Rail­road Cor­po­ra­tion (KORAIL) laid off 290 KTX atten­dants as part of its now-botched pri­va­ti­za­tion plan. Now the stand­off has final­ly end­ed. The cor­po­ra­tion said on July 21 that it would hire back the atten­dants over the next year.

Pri­va­ti­za­tion and layoff

Con­trary to their expec­ta­tions, the atten­dants were hired by a food cater­ing arm of the rail­road admin­is­tra­tion on a tem­po­rary nine-month basis until year-end in 2004. The gov­ern­ment agency promised that they would be hired full-time when the admin­is­tra­tion became a state-owned cor­po­ra­tion, a pre­lim­i­nary step toward privatization.

But in Jan­u­ary 2005, after the admin­is­tra­tion became state-owned KORAIL, it did not hire the atten­dants direct­ly. Instead, the cater­ing arm, which now became a KORAIL sub­sidiary respon­si­ble for KTX pas­sen­ger ser­vice, offered the atten­dants a one-year tem­po­rary contract.

By the end of the year, almost all the atten­dants (393 by then) joined the Kore­an Rail­way Work­ers Union (KRWU), which is part of the Kore­an Con­fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions, the more pro­gres­sive of the country’s two rival union federations.

In March 2006 they walked off the job, demand­ing full-time sta­tus at KORAIL. That May, the sub­sidiary laid off 280 strik­ing atten­dants who reject­ed the con­tract that would annu­al­ly renew their tem­po­rary employment.

4,526 days

This was how their 4,526-day cam­paign start­ed. Here is a quick run­down of their major protests:

In May 2006, the police arrest­ed about 80 atten­dants who occu­pied the Seoul office of the KORAIL.

In Jan­u­ary 2007, KTX union lead­ers began a sit-in at the Seoul cen­tral sta­tion, which last­ed on and off until this July.

In August 2008, three union­ists staged a sit-in on the top of a light­ing tow­er at the sta­tion, which last­ed more than 20 days.

Over time, 100 work­ers dropped out. The remain­ing 180 con­tin­ued their protests in a vari­ety of forms — such as leaflet­ting, sit-ins, and teach-ins — while they went about their lives, start­ed fam­i­lies, and got new jobs.

Clum­sy pri­va­ti­za­tion, cost­ly resistance

Mean­while, KORAIL’s attempt at pri­va­ti­za­tion back­fired, as engi­neers and main­te­nance work­ers mount­ed resis­tance. In Decem­ber 2014, rail­road work­ers staged a 22-day strike, the longest such stop­page in the country’s his­to­ry, against KTX’s plan to spin off the most lucra­tive por­tion of KTX. Man­age­ment dis­missed 98 work­ers and formed STX, the spinoff.

How­ev­er, KORAIL had come to under­stand that labor resis­tance would make any fur­ther pri­va­ti­za­tion attempt pro­hib­i­tive­ly cost­ly. Also, its pri­va­ti­za­tion plan turned out to be clum­sy at best. The STX now suf­fers low mar­gins, prompt­ing the gov­ern­ment to float a pro­pos­al to merge the spin­off back into the KTX.

Legal tri­umph dashed

After the light­ing tow­er sit-in, in Novem­ber 2008, 34 of the KTX union mem­bers filed a law­suit ask­ing the court to deter­mine whether they were employ­ees of the KORAIL.

A year lat­er, the court ruled in the work­ers’ favor. It was a mile­stone vic­to­ry for all work­ers in South Korea, where once-good jobs had been becom­ing more and more pre­car­i­ous and scarcer and scarcer.

Man­age­ment appealed the deci­sion. The women had to wait anoth­er two years until 2011 before the appeals court upheld the ear­li­er deci­sion. KORAIL paid the atten­dants four years’ worth of back pay but did not rein­state them. It brought the case to South Korea’s supreme court. In 2015, eight years after the first law­suit, the supreme court reversed the low­er-court ruling.

Sui­cide under debt

KORAIL’s retal­i­a­tion was swift and cru­el. It quick­ly won an injunc­tion to col­lect an aver­age of KRW 86.4 mil­lion ($76,000) that it had paid to each laid-off attendant.

In March 2016, a 36-year-old for­mer atten­dant plunged her­self to death, leav­ing a short note to her three-year-old daugh­ter: I am sor­ry, my baby. All I can leave with you is debt.”

Into 2017, the polit­i­cal bal­ance began to tilt toward the KTX atten­dants’ cam­paign. In March, amid months of mass protests, the country’s con­sti­tu­tion­al court impeached Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye, who used her shaman­ic friend to receive mas­sive bribes from cor­po­ra­tions. Three months lat­er, the coun­try elect­ed as pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in, a for­mer stu­dent activist and human rights lawyer, who, among oth­er things, promised the rein­state­ment of KTX attendants.

While praised as a medi­a­tor over a denu­clearized Kore­an penin­su­la between the two volatile lead­ers, Don­ald Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Mr. Moon has remained reluc­tant in push­ing through pro-labor reforms.

Occu­py­ing the Supreme Court

The KTX atten­dants, now in their mid ‑thir­ties, wait­ed a year for the new pres­i­dent to make good on his promise. On May 24, they pitched a canopy again at the Seoul sta­tion, begin­ning anoth­er sit-in. The work­ers said they would con­tin­ue to squat at the sta­tion until their reinstatement.

Less than a week into the sit-in, bomb­shell news dropped on the coun­try: a supreme court jus­tice had twist­ed the law and made rul­ings from 2013 to 2016 to please the now-impeached Pres­i­dent Park. Among these rul­ings was one against the KTX atten­dants in 2015.

Fol­low­ing the news, on May 29, tens of for­mer KTX atten­dants, wav­ing the pic­ture of their union sis­ter who had tak­en her own life, attempt­ed to occu­py the supreme court.

Prompt­ed by what is shap­ing up to be the worst judi­cial cri­sis in the country’s his­to­ry, KORAIL ini­ti­at­ed dia­logue with the union and decid­ed to rein­state the 180 workers.

We want­ed to prove that we were not wrong,” said Kim Seung-ha, a shop stew­ard with the KTX atten­dants’ branch of the KRWU, com­ment­ing on the reinstatement.

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

Yi San is a free­lance writer based in New York.
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