No one knew the machines’ exact speed. A coworker who had been there around fourth months said the speeds of #1 to #10 were all set to “25,” but she was just sharing a “legend.” Most of the women operating the machines didn’t know where to find the button that adjusted the speed. The maximum, minimum, and average speeds were all shrouded in mystery. And so the machines treated everyone equally. A coworker who had been there over half a year worked at the same pace as a newbie like me. The machines didn’t discriminate.
Common job injuries
On Mar. 2, I was working at #11, and the conveyor belt had been halted for an inspection of the machine. As I lifted the belt up and pulled it to the right, my right middle and ring fingers ended up caught in the part where the belt looped back. My scream was drowned out by the sounds of the machines around me. The flesh under the nail of my ring finger was yanked up by about 3 centimeters, and blood was running down my hand. The woman who had been looking at the machine coiled half a roll of bandages over it, crafting a makeshift cast. “I hurt myself the same way before. It took about three weeks to heal,” she said. With my fingers faltering, my working speed dropped even slower, unprocessed items piling in a mound on the belt.
Pained at the sight, my coworker told me, “I’ll lower the speed by about five.” It was then that I learned for the first time that the machine did have a speed adjustment feature that the workers could use. Only the team leader and a few of the others who had been there for over half a year knew how to adjust the pace.
Once I’d gotten the hang of the work, I would sometimes find tedium setting in. As I learned through trial and error and cut out extraneous movements, I began working with my hands rather than my head. At those moments when the machine and I became one, it became painful to become aware of the passage of time. Hee-jin, a 22-year-old coworker, saw the watch on my left wrist and asked, “Why do you wear a watch? Doesn’t it bother you to see the time?”
Of course, such languors were not often permitted us. Just when I thought I’d acclimated, the machine’s rate would be sped up. Jeon Sook-hee, a 45-year-old coworker, said to me, “I’m pretty good at my work, so I always put it at top speed. Before, I had three turns and my arm wouldn’t go up when it was running hard. On those days, I’d do just one turn and I couldn’t move my arm.”
At 1 am on Mar. 12, I was crouching in the changing room to take a breather after “lunch” when I found a cyst about 3 mm high on my right wrist. I bent my wrist, and the center of it bulged out. As soon as I got off work at 9 am, I went to a clinic. There was a clinic near the complex that specialized exclusively in treating hands that had been cut or crashed in the machinery. After dozing off in the waiting room, I headed into the doctor’s office. It was a ganglion cyst, I was told – a condition that results from joint strain. After all the constant movement of my upper body – my shoulders, arms, wrists, and fingers – every joint in my fingers was swollen from stacking and folding and turning the packs in my hands. Somewhere along the way, my cell phone stopped recognizing my fingerprints for its unlocking function. The cyst remained for about a month even after I quit the job.
In a survey of 109 production workers, 90 percent reported a musculoskeletal symptom that persisted for at least a week (Worker 119 Project Group for Namdong Industrial Complex Rights, 2016). Musculoskeletal conditions are serious issues, resulting from repeated improper use of some part of the body. They appear in the nerves and muscles of shoulders, lower backs, arms, and legs. As I shuffled in exhausted to eat my lunch, my arms shook so much I could barely scoop my rice. The team leader, who was ladling soup at the food station, laughed and said, “Oh my, you’re even slower at spooning rice than I am lading soup.”
It was 2:30 am on Mar. 6 when the yawning started. It was my first time on the night shift. I’d started work at 8:30 on Mar. 5; somewhere along the way, midnight had passed. As I peered into the mask packs, my eyelids sank heavily. Based on my normal sleeping patterns, I’d have to watch a movie or something to remain awake at that hour. I had almost six hours left before I could clock out.
Lifestyle patterns undergo 180-degree change according to work shifts
An undercover Hankyoreh reporter discovered a cyst on her right wrist in the workers’ locker room on Mar. 12. The cyst didn’t go away for over a month. (Ko Han-sol
The women with experience working the night shift had stayed up all night on Mar. 4 and slept in the afternoon before arriving on Mar. 5. Having failed at staying up all night the day before, I had not had a wink of sleep before reporting to work. By 4:30 am, my lack of sleep was hounding me like a collection agency. My head drooped before I could resist it. This isn’t going to work, I thought. I tried to work standing up, but now my back began to slump. By 5:30 am or so, I started humming the song “Like OOH-AHH” by Twice as I stood up to work.
The sounds of the song were dashed to fragments by the noise of the machinery. At that moment, my right hand touched the part of the machine where my finger had gotten caught. As I felt the cold metal, the pain of that day came back to me like a bad dream, and my eyes flew open. But even that was only momentary. The terrifying nightmare turned into a sweet dream, and I nodded listlessly off. When steel workers were asked how often they had been actually or almost injured on the job, the rate was twice as high for those on alternating shifts than those on fixed daytime schedules (Korean Metal Workers’ Union et al., 2013).
Lifestyle patterns undergo a 180-degree shift according to the times workers clock in and out: morning becomes evening, and vice versa. During my two weeks on the night shift, I never slept more than four hours on a weekday. I was unable to sleep deeply either. Four hours of sleep in the daytime is qualitatively different from four hours of sleep at night. If a sound sleep is a solid line between yesterday and today, this sort of catnapping was more like a blurry dotted line between one day of work and the next. As we left work, my coworkers would say, “See you tomorrow” – and then laughingly correct themselves: “Whoops. I mean see you later.”
Sleep wasn’t the only thing we were deprived of. There was also a lack of conversation. For my industrial complex jobs in Incheon, I stayed with a friend in Bucheon. The house was always empty when I returned home from the night shift. It was midday, and the studio apartment was quiet.
I sent my friend a message on KakaoTalk, but she must have been busy because she didn’t reply for some time. Naturally, I had to cancel all my plans on weekday evenings. I pushed back three appointments and took care of them all on Sunday. Not being on the same timeline as my friends forced me to give up more than I had expected.
“Ahn Hee-jung – could this really be happening?” While I was taking a break around midnight on Mar. 5, I got the impression that something big had happened while I was scrolling through my backlog of text messages. But before I could whet my curiosity, I had to go back to work. Mobile phones aren’t allowed on the floor, and there wasn’t any internet access in the locker room. It was as if I was cut off from the world for half a day, from the time I entered the factory at 8 pm until I went home at 8 am. No one mentioned Ahn Hee-jung (former South Chungcheong Province Governor) in the factory that day. I didn’t learn that he had been accused of rape until I was riding the subway home from work the next morning.
By Ko Han-sol, staff reporter
Please direct comments or questions to [email@example.com]