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Although the incorporation of Korean economy into the global capitalist system had already started around a decade ago, Korean people came to experience its genuine nature during and after the economic crisis of 1997. The structural adjustment program of the IMF shook the labour market and massive lay-offs were implemented. In particular, women workers were who laid off first.

One method that the management used was subcontracting those production lines and business sectors where women were predominant. Women in these places were usually typists or clerical assistants, who were considered not important, and thus provided the logic and justification for the lay-offs. Many companies would lay-off these women, and instead employ workers from dispatch companies, thus providing the management with ways in which to decrease labour costs and evade provision of insurances and benefits. Or in the case of banks, the same worker would be reemployed, but on a contract basis as irregular workers, again to decrease labour costs.

Attaining flexibility of women workers was backed up by a kind of ideology through which women workers are considered not really as workers, but as 'assistant income providers', and absorbed into the service sector - in areas such as the so-called 'entertainment' businesses - what contributes to gender degradation. These jobs are not only unstable, but they also enforce the use of femininity to raise sales, making women more vulnerable to possibilities of abuse. For example, many married women in their 30's and 40's are employed in the so-called 'telephone rooms (jeon-hwa-bang )' and forced to have phone sex. Other married women are employed as 'pager women', who are paged to come to bars in order to entertain men.

Another method of transforming women into irregular workers, was targeting foremost women who were married to someone in the same workplace, and also those who were pregnant or were on their maternal leave. They provided the management with strong justification based on patriarchal values of 'women's place is at home'. Thus, the social achievements accomplished over the last couple of decades were undermined.

Now, the percentage of irregular workers is risen to higher levels than regular workers. In analyzing a census on the economically-active workforce implemented by the Korean Statistical Office in August 2001, the Korea Labor and Society Institute estimated the number of irregular workers to be 7.37 million, constituting 55.7% of the total workforce. According to studies made in 2000, out of entire irregular workers, the percentage of women is higher than that of men at 53%, and within the entire women workforce irregular workers take up 70%.

Source: Neoliberalism through the eyes of women. Joo-Yeon Jeong and Seung-Min Choi, PICIS. www.klsi.org

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