[Reportage, Part 4-1] The lowest rungs of labor in 21st century South Korea

Posted on : 2018-07-01 10:49 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
A close and disturbing look at the life of night shift factory workers

“Do we really know about labor?” Starting from that question, four reporters ventured in 2009 to look at labor at the lowest rungs of South Korean society. Through the “Labor ORZ” series in the Hankyoreh 21, they shared images of workers laid low by frustrations. (“ORZ” is a pseudo-acronym that represents the shape of a person crawling on their hands and knees.)

For its 30th anniversary, The Hankyoreh decided to look back at the same question. What is the true face of workers today in an era of dazzling innovations represented by phrases like “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and “superconnected society?” With many today struggling to survive despite working hard, workers may be even more diminished than before.

The Hankyoreh’s reporters directly tackled questions of raw contradictions that cannot be expressed in banners or slogans, statistics or policies. “Labor ORZ” paints a detailed picture of South Korean workers who have sunk deeper than ever before. The first images come from a manufacturing company in the Gyeonggi/Incheon area.

Nightshift workers disembark a bus and head to work at a factory in Ansan
Nightshift workers disembark a bus and head to work at a factory in Ansan
The unseen face of the cosmetic industry

There wasn’t the slightest deviation. The machine inserted essence into the mask packs with the sheets inside, sealed them up, and dropped them on the conveyor belt with a “thwack.” It took less than one second for three of the packs to travel down the conveyor belt and drop onto the work station. Gaps included, it meant a total of around 70 of the packs reaching the station every hour. My job was to sit there and inspect them – checking to see if the product was properly sealed, the expiration date clearly printed, and the “authentic product” sticker placed in the right spot. I was the machine’s helper, weeding out the defective items.

During the months of February and March, I worked alternating day and night shifts at cosmetic and printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing companies in the Gyeonggi Province and Incheon areas. Alternating shifts meant day and night shifts of 12 hours each. The day shift lasted from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm; with the typical overtime hours, I left the factory by 8:30 pm. The night shift started at 8:30 pm, with workers leaving by 8 o’clock the next morning after overtime. In effect, day and night were completely reversed every two weeks.

Finding an alternating shift job in the Incheon area wasn’t hard. A search for “alternating day and night shifts” on one job search site turned up around 300 job announcements. I picked one of them, which read, “Mask pack packaging worker wanted, 100% bonus, alternating day and night shifts.” I called the temp agency, and an hour and a half later I was on my way to interview. The interview lasted 18 minutes. It was a minimum wage job paying 7,530 won (US$6.74) an hour, but there were many applicants.

The entire process was made up of fast decisions made without a moment’s hesitation. In less than two hours, I was a temporary worker at a cosmetics company. The company where I clocked in for nearly a month as a temp was a well-established business making mask packs and basic cosmetics. “Inspection and packaging” at a cosmetic plant in Incheon was the easiest type of job to get for a female worker without a particular skill set.

I first reported for work on the night shift on Mar. 5. The subway I boarded was jam-packed that evening.

Some of the passengers were relaxing on their way home and talking with coworkers about their bosses; others were on their phones confirming where to meet up that night. I stepped out of the subway and walked up the staircase to Exit 5 of a station on Line 1 of the Incheon subway. The commuter bus was parked underneath a night sky lit with neon signs.

“Did you get some sleep?”

“I really didn’t sleep at all today.”

I chatted with “Jeong-a,” a 25-year-old university student, as we boarded the bus. A television on board was midway through a soap opera that had started at 7:15. The bus stopped at various spots in downtown Incheon before entering the darkened complex.

As the time came for the day shift workers to pass the baton on to the night crew, a changing room measuring a little over seven pyeong (23㎡) was filled with “eonnis” - literally “big sisters,” the name the coworkers commonly used to address each other - who were changing out of their uniforms and back into their clothes. Once we had donned our blue antistatic garments decorated with black stripes and our hygiene caps, masks, and safety boots, we were ready to go. We walked past the changing room into the work area, where there was a five-minute assembly led by the team leader. Her voice, which had to relay orders across the noise of the machines, was always sharp and loud. At 8:30 on the dot – morning or evening – the machines would clatter to life. Among the 20 or so machines, my job was support for either #9 or #11.

For my first day of work on Feb. 27, I was at #11. The inspections are not just visual. You have to gather the mask pack up and turn it around, shifting your body weight and pressing with your forearms until you hear a cracking sound to make sure none of the content escapes. To save time, we would pile up ten or so pack to check all at once; we had around 10 seconds to check ten areas, including whether the label was in the right place (label defects) or the pack was properly sealed (sealing defects). We removed the defective items and lined up good items 350 to a box, placed in two rows. By the time our workday finished, we’d repeated the same motions around 2,500 times and checked about 30,000 packs.

A never-ending flood of mask packs spit out by a relentless machine

The packs kept coming down the conveyor belt before I could finish inspecting the ten or so in my hands. The items awaiting inspection began piling up and dropping out of the work station. Even as I went to pick them up, more packs were coming down the belt and piling up at my station. I stealthily swept the backed-up items into a box off to one side. I could feel the glare from the woman operating the machine. The top of my uniform was soaked in sweat.

The machine waited for no one. Even before I’d had a chance to inspect the packs in my hands, the machine would be belching new ones onto the belt, as if yelling at me to go faster. I had no time to adjust my posture or scratch my itching nose. I began quietly muttering curses at no one in particular. “Damn it. Damn it to hell.” At that moment, I felt fortunate to be wearing a mask.

A few times, I mistakenly thought I heard the machine’s noise quieting down as if it were coming to a stop.

Two fellow temporary workers in their forties also reported to work for the first time that day, but disappeared after lunch. “I can’t even breathe. There really is a lot to inspect, isn’t there? Even the people who’ve been here a while are struggling to keep up.” On the following day, two women who had showed up hand-in-hand with their friend – they looked to be in their twenties or so – also vanished.

Absent the following day was a 23-year old woman who explained that she had her period, but was afraid to say she had to go to the restroom. Even an illegal unspoken rule that you had to work at least three days to be paid was not enough to make them stay. I tried counting the number of people who quit over the course of one week, but finally gave up. Every empty space was immediately filled.

By Ko Han-sol, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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