Eleven women workers who make garments for the American market were sent to prison in Seoul today after striking for a raise in their 25-cent-an-hour wages. Alleged ringleaders of an illegal strike, the workers were arrested at the factory gate and sentenced to prison terms of 15 to 20 days for causing a disturbance.
The women are paid about $60 a month to produce stockings and other items sold in Europe and America. Labor organizers say the court action was taken to break a justified strike againt "starvation-level wages."
Labor disputes are rare in South Korea, because the country's booming export trade depends heavily on low wages and strikes are prohibited by law. Fellow workers of the imprisoned strikers gathered at a Seoul police station today and plan a further appeal for their release Friday. They say the struggle will continue.
"We are fighting for a minimum living wage, so we can't accept the jailing of our friends," said an angry woman who asked not to be identified.
Dissatisfaction is running high among the 1,200 women employees at the Namyeong Nylon Co. in Yongdongpo, an industrial suburb. They are resisting pressures from factory owners, government labor bureau officials and management-influenced unions that generally stifle industrial unrest in this country. When male executives forcibly broke up a sit-in by the strikers earlier this month, one man was stabbed in the thigh with a pair of scissors. A woman is awaiting trail for wounding him.
Most of the workers are women in their early 20s who are paid between $52 and $63 a month for working six days a week. The Rev. Cho Chi-Song, staff worker at the Christian Urban Industrial Mission that counsels the women, says they eat "very poor food - mostly just rich and kimchi (pickled cabbage)." They budget minutely and can spend only $10 to $17 a month on groceries. For comparison, a modest dinner in a family-style hole-in-the-wall Seoul restaurant costs $4.
Trouble started when the women asked for a 35 per cent raise this year to offset inflation. The company offered 18 per cent. Korean labor law endorses the rights of the worker to bargain collectively and strike, but they are banned from doing so by a national security law that takes precedence. The Namyeong workers were forced to accept the government arbitration award of 25 per cent.
When they collected their pay checks two weeks ago, the women found that raises varied on the basis of productivity rather than the accepted principle of seniority. They were angry and decided to take action.
The law permits workers to organize. Like an increasing number of Korean factories, the Namyeong plant had a group of workers schooled in labor organization by the local branch of the Urban Industrial Mission.
Beginning with a full-day strike by 800 workers - a rare occurrence in Seoul - they harrassed the Namyeong management with sit-downs and sing-ins for an across-the-board raise. Last Wednesday another action was planned, but police waiting at the gates took 16 women into custody. Five were acquitted in today's court hearing.
The dispute highlights Korean wage levels just as American garment workers are protesting cheap foreign imports produced in "sweat shops." It also marks an awakening militance in the labor force, for which the industrial mission is both praised and criticized. The government recently imposed $41-a-month minimum wage on large companies and is known to be concerned by signs of worker unrest.
The Yongdongpo mission offices are under physical surveilance and intermittent phone-tapping by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. The tiny offices serve 110 groups of about 10 workers each, and the labor organizers work 14-hour days preaching the Gospel and social justice. Since the Namyeong dispute started, Rev. Cho Chi-Song has been called a Communist and threatened with death in numerous anonymous telephone calls.