Industrial Soldiers


South Korea's transformation into an industrial power over the past three decades has dramatically altered the lives of its people. Among those most affected have been the young women employed in factories. Ironically, industrialization has both exploited the traditional roles of women and undermined those roles by involving women in economic and political issues beyond their households.

Korean women have always worked, but traditionally did most of their work in the home or on small family farms. Until the 1960s, few women worked in manufacturing. As Korea industrialized, the number of women employed in manufacturing rose more than 500 percent to almost a million in the mid-1980s.

The participation of women in manufacturing has been integral to Korea's industrial accomplishment. When it was launched in the 1960s, the government's export-led industrialization focused on electronics, textiles and clothing, and other light industries that employed mostly women. The contribution of women factory workers to the country even received praise from the government and media, which called them "industrial soldiers" and "the backbone of industrialization."

Despite this praise, women workers received few benefits from Korea's transformation into a manufacturing power. Factory women worked longer hours than men for substantially lower wages. In 1989, the average woman worked 54.1 hours a week. The wage difference between men and women has been decreasing but women still earned only 53 percent of what men did in 1989.

Most factory women are young and single and expect to leave work after marriage or, at the latest, when the first child is born. Almost all women's jobs involve repetitive tasks that require little training, and they offer minimal opportunity to advance. This pattern ensures not only low wages but also that the labor force will be young and easy to control.

A hierarchy based on gender structures the environment in factories where women work. Women perform specialized jobs, supervised and directed by men. As anthropologist Aihwa Ong observed in export-processing factories in Malaysia, this subordination of women is accepted as natural or common-sense by workers because it is in accordance with their traditional norms. Korean traditions, based on Confucian teachings, emphasize a hierarchy in society that clearly defines a woman's status. Within the family, she is subordinate to her father until she marries, then subordinate to her husband, and finally to her son when she is a widow. Family membership is inherited through males; the women are considered to be guests who will eventually leave to join another family. From an early age, girls learn they are of secondary importance, and this preference for males deeply affects women's perception of themselves.

The Masan Free Export Zone (MAFEZ), which employs mostly women for export manufacturing, and the ventures that have grown up in its shadow epitomize the problems faced by the young women in Korea's factories - and their ways of overcoming them. Despite their low wages, women take advantage of employment to invest in the future by saving for their dowries, and they have sought to improve working conditions through collective action.


The government set up the Masan Free Export Zone in 1970 as part of the effort to promote industrialization. The zone quickly attracted foreign investors, principally from Japan, which is only a short distance away by sea. The first factories were for light manufacturing and assembly, especially in the electronics, precision-equipment, garment, and shoe industries.

Such light industries provided a significant part of Korea's export earnings in the 1970s, and MAFEZ grew quickly. From the outset, working conditions were poor, and women had to put in long hours of mandatory overtime. Women recall working as many as 105 overtime hours a month. Labor disputes were frequent, although MAFEZ workers were banned from organizing unions.

Although light manufacturing became less important to Korea's economy after the 1970s, MAFEZ continued growing until 1987, when 76 factories employed about 270,000 women and 8,000 men. That year, factory women in Masan and around the country allied themselves with student radicals to demand better wages and working conditions as well as freedom for political action. As a result of this nationwide uprising, MAFEZ workers won the right to legally establish unions.

However, MAFEZ declined sharply in importance after 1987. Companies stopped recruiting workers directly, relying instead on referrals from nearby high schools. By 1990, 70 companies remained in MAFEZ, and the number of workers had fallen to 14,000 women and 6,000 men. Most of the decrease occurred through attrition, but several important factories also closed in 1989. Unions protested the closings, but their radicalism also played a role in pushing foreign companies out of MAFEZ.

Even with the right to unionize, conditions in Korean factories are harsh. According to a U.S. Department of Labor study, the casualty rate is five times greater than in comparable Asian countries and 15 times the rate of Western countries. The Korean government's supervision of foreign-owned factories in MAFEZ makes these a bit safer than average, but workers still face poor working conditions.

Manufacturing in Masan isn't limited to the Free Export Zone. Subcontractors operating outside the zone provide parts for MAFEZ factories through "out-zone processing." Although not actually located in MAFEZ, these firms are very much a part of its manufacturing process. MAFEZ production depends totally on global demand, and subcontracting firms serve as a buffer, absorbing the impact of booms and busts.

A fifth of the manufacturing employees in Masan City worked in out-zone processing in 1985, and the proportion has grown as the MAFEZ labor force declined. Both the government and the companies in MAFEZ encourage the spread of subcontracting. The government says it boosts local industry, while companies want to escape the regulation of MAFEZ and reduce production costs. Workers is these factories can be easily dismissed and also serve as a reserve labor pool.

Subcontractors employ mostly married women who are too old to be offered jobs in MAFEZ. They also employ many women under 18, who can't work legally in MAFEZ. Subcontractors operate with little investment and even less concern for workers. Owners simply rent a space and try to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible.


The women recruited to work in MAFEZ come from poor families and have few options available to them. Many grow up in rural areas in Kyongnam Province. Young single women seek jobs in Masan because their families can't provide the support that more affluent families can. Such supports can include secondary education, a livelihood during adolescence, and a dowry. Not only do many families fail to fulfill these needs, but many rely on daughters to contribute to the family's support.

Because it affects marriage prospects, respectability is a prime consideration in a woman's choice of job. Before the 1960s, factory work was not respectable. Because unsupervised young women were viewed as susceptible to bad moral influences, few women willingly worked for factories.

Government propaganda and the media promoted factory work, and, as factory work became more common, it became more respectable. Young women also began to like the idea that it offered them more control over their lives.

Women remained ambivalent about factory work, however. On the one hand, it pays better than most jobs available to young women and is now reasonably respectable. Women also appreciate the opportunity to be independent of their families and run their own lives. On the other hand, the work is hard, hours are long, and the status is low. Most women would prefer office work, even if the pay is less. Workers often complain, "People look down on us because we work in factories." Young women typically say, "I can't wait to get out of here." Very few feel proud to be workers.


Young women workers tolerate hard work and harsh conditions because they anticipate spending only a short time in MAFEZ before marrying. Most do not identify with the working class and view the low-status of factory work as a temporary condition.

Their anticipated marriages are the main focus of young women's lives. Blending traditional norms and contemporary economic reality, practically every unmarried worker saves for her dowry each month despite the low wages. Many cut back even on seeming necessities. The skip breakfast and dinner, and only eat the lunch provided by the company. Women expect to marry by age 26, and, as they approach that age, give intense weight to building their dowry.

Most women marry in their mid-20s, and other workers, who by and large feel that women should marry and become housewives, even pressure women over 26 to quit. Teasing from managers and co-workers led a 28-year-old worker I knew to give up her job at an electronics company where she worked for seven years. "When are you getting married?" she was asked. "My God, you will be here until you get to be a grandmother." She quit, but she later had to take a job for a subcontractor located outside MAFEZ. She ended up making less money and working longer hours.

Women justify leaving the labor force by referring to their position in the family. They sat, "I want to be a good wife and a mother" or "It isn't good for married women to work." Others say, "I'm sick and tired of working in a factory."

Young women expect marriage to improve their status and take it for granted their husbands will support them. They expect their husbands to forbid them to work, and many women say that a husband who allows his wife to work isn't a man. However, many women soon find that their husband's income can't support a family, so the women must return to factories under even more arduous conditions. Married women usually end up in subcontracting firms or doing "homework" in a putting-out system. "Big companies won't hire us married women," one worker explains, "so we wind up in subcontracting factories where there are no fringe benefits and no job security."

Homework is particularly attractive to women with young children. Putting-out jobs, which are paid at a piece rate, are hard to get because so many women want them, even if the pay is low. Most housewives don't regard homework as real work because they stay in their own homes, and husbands are less likely to object to homework. The women also prefer it to factory work because they can care for their children.


South Korea's export-led industrialization is often taken as a model for Third World countries. Yet Korean women have participated in this process under extremely arduous conditions. They are the lowest paid and longest working portion of an overworked and underpaid labor force.

Nevertheless, many women use employment to their advantage. Most invest in the future by putting together dowries, and their view that factory work is temporary makes conditions bearable. And while most women use factory work to pursue traditional roles as housewives, factory work has led to more radical change for some women.

Despite the factors - both in their upbringing and from employers and the government - discouraging women workers from activism, work in the factories of MAFEZ aroused a deep sense of injustice in these women. The events of 1987 drew ordinary women into leadership roles, a part that demanded a high level of commitment and permanently changed the lives of those women. In the crackdown that followed, MAFEZ employers systematically fired union leaders and blacklisted them to prevent their getting new jobs. Several women I knew as labor activists in 1987 and 1988 spent time in jail, yet their commitment has been strengthened by the experience. They have seen the impact that union activism can have on working conditions - and are convinced that more activism not less is the answer.


Until 1987, unions were illegal in MAFEZ. Moreover, politics interested few workers, and most wanted to stay out of disputes with management. Joint labor-management councils, which the management councils, which the management representatives dominated, controlled labor relations.

Nevertheless, most workers in MAFEZ were concerned about their low pay. In 1987, women workers told me they deserved around 200,000-250,000 won a month (about $235-$300). They were then earning about 150,000 won. A local Catholic organization, concerned with workers' rights, estimated the minimum cost of living for a single woman to be 185,000 won a month.

The need for higher wages motivated MAFEZ workers to join in the nationwide labor uprising in the summer of 1987, staging sit-in strikes at 41 companies in the zon. After the uprising, the pay in electronics factories went up to about 200,000 won a month. Wages as a whole more than doubled between 1987 and 1991, although the cost of living also rose substantially.

After the initial disputes were settled, however, factory owners pressured workers to withdraw from unions, and management took over or broke up most of the labor organizations. With their principal demand met, many workers chose not to confront management, which remained vehemently opposed to unions. Workers also feared that unions would cause companies to close their factories. Two of the biggest employers in MAFEZ did in fact close and dismiss their entire staffs. The Korean government resumed its repression of unions and persecution of leaders.

For the most part, the high level of participation by women workers in unions didn't last. Today, democratic unions have virtually ceased to exist in MAFEZ.

Women's Worth

Country: India

Project: Women in Forestry

Since 1986, DISHA (Sanskrit for "direction") has helped Guajaratí women on forest reserves take legal action to improve their wages and working conditions. Guajarat has the highest proportion of indigenous people of any state in India. DISHA, a non-governmental organization with a small, mostly tribal staff, pressures for tribal land claims and rights to the forest.

The only paid work for women in the region is picking tendu leaves and other seasonal produce for the state forestry department, the largest local employer. Seven years ago, with support from Oxfam America and other sources, DISHA began helping the exploited women organize for land and workers' rights. A two-year campaign tripled the minimum daily wage and won compensation for women injured in falls from tendu trees.

DISHA's adult-education classes teach women financial skills and promote environmentally sensitive farming. DISHA also helps women generate income through a tree-nursery program that provides them with saplings to grow fruit trees. And with DISHA's assistance, women demand a voice in the formation of laws governing the use of the forest.

Contact: Oxfam America, 26 West St., Boston, MA 02111

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: