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Reviewed by:
  • They are not Machines: Korean Women Workers and Their Fight for Democratic Trade Unionism in the 1970s
  • Mary Margaret Fonow (bio)
They are not Machines: Korean Women Workers and Their Fight for Democratic Trade Unionism in the 1970s, by Chun Soonok. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003. 214 pp. $89.95 cloth.

I have always been a bit skeptical about economic "miracles," and this remarkable book reminds me that skepticism can be valuable when it comes to examining miraculous claims of economic progress. Chun Soonok's moving account of the labor struggles of women and girls in the Korean textile industry demonstrates the human cost of the rapid transformation of the economy from agrarian to industrial. The so-called Korean miracle was the result of the brutal suppression of labor rights by the military dictatorship of Park Chunghee. According to Chun, women and girls in the textile industry paid an enormous price in long hours, low wages, and degrading treatment so that Park could attract foreign investors with the promise of a cheap and compliant workforce. One subject told Chun,

The management behaviour towards the women in the factory was always the same, very rough and very insulting. The jaedansha would never refer to us by name, it seemed that it would be humiliating for them to do so. It was always 'Number Three Machinist', or 'Number Five Shida'. I felt that I had no dignity, no identity. I was treated as though I were not human at all, but a 'thing'. There was no difference between me as a person and the sewing machine that I was attached to. How well I could understand the last words spoken by Chun Tae-il before he died: 'Do not mistreat these young girls. They are not machines. They are human beings.'

(pp. 85–86)

The dying man's words are those of the author's brother, who sacrificed his life in a political act of self-immolation in 1970 to protest the inhumane conditions of women garment workers. Chun Soonok's mother, Yi-So-sun, became a labor-rights advocate, taking up the cause of human rights and trade unions. Chun, who earned her doctorate in 2001 from the University of Warwick, herself worked in a sweatshop in central Seoul and has been a lifelong advocate of working women's rights in Korea and worldwide. She uses personal experience, interviews, diaries, historical documents, newspaper accounts, and observations of critical events to weave together the history and significance of the role women played in the struggle for democratic trade unions in Korea. The book received a well-deserved honorable mention from the American Sociological Association section on labor and the labor movement as one of the best books in 2005 written about labor.

Chun explains how the concentration of women in the textile and garment industry was the impetus for organized industrial action. Gender was integral to both the control of the labor process and the resistance to such control. Park actively manipulated stereotypes of Asian women to promise foreign investors that Korea produced a docile workforce. Despite opposition from government and owners and the lack of support from the male-dominated and state-controlled labor unions, these women workers overcame "deeply embedded cultural mores" and oppressive social structures to establish trade unions in places where none had existed and, in some cases, replaced established hierarchy in male-dominated unions. Chun not only uncovers the previously ignored role of women in the Korean trade union movement but also challenges the conventional notion that the movement for democratic trade unions began in 1987. By paying attention to gender, Chun pushes the boundaries of historical categorization back to the early 1970s.

Chun sets the stage for her analysis by providing the historical, economic, and political context for understanding women's trade union activism. She examines how labor law, economic development policy, and Cold War ideology impacted the Korean economy and the status of women workers. She documents not only the changes in the composition of the Korean workforce but also the rapid change in the very way workplaces were organized and structured. However, at the heart of her book is the struggle of women...


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pp. 110-112
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