[Reportage, Part 4-3]Exhausted but unable to sleep

Posted on : 2018-07-01 11:00 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
 with no name or address attached. (Baek So-ah
with no name or address attached. (Baek So-ah

The machine keeps rolling with no break, not even at night. I was told that the machine was worth more than 1 billion won (US$892,000). A motionless machine is just a hunk of metal. The more expensive the machine, the more pressure a company feels to keep it running 24 hours a day, 365 days a week, to get their money’s worth. It’s cheaper to run 10 machines 24 hours a day than 20 machines 12 hours a day. It’s cheaper even though this means paying workers time and a half for overtime. And for workers who have to count every penny, overtime pay is a temptation that’s hard to resist. That’s the miserable win-win relationship of workers and machines.

“I just lay there,” the women at the factory say. What this means is that they kept trying to fall asleep, even though sleep never came. Choi So-yeon, 35, relies on earplugs and an eye mask. With a fortune teller set up shop below her, and she can’t sleep without earplugs, she said. Another temp worker, Woo Ye-ji, 25, had trouble sleeping deeply despite the blackout curtains covering on her windows. She joked about how bad it was: when her roommate, who could fall asleep at once, asked Ye-ji if she was asleep, she said, yeah, I am. Choi Ji-suk, 43, washes down a plate of sour kimchi with a bottle of soju before going to bed. One study found that six out of ten metalworkers doing rotating day-night shifts suffered from insomnia (“Fact-Finding Report on Sleeping Disorders,” Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health, 2011).

 staff photographer)
staff photographer)

On Mar. 8, Park Min-ju, 45, let out a big yawn. Every Wednesday, her son, who is in elementary school, is let out of school early and gets home around 1 pm. “My son kept prattling about what had happened at school, and I didn’t get to sleep a wink,” Park said, smiling.

With nights and days reversed, the body conveys its discomfort through its “weakest link.” Lunch time during the 12-hour night shift is at 12:30 am. Digestive organs that ought to be resting in the middle of the night are confronted with a salty, greasy meal – stir-fried pork or black bean noodles, for example. Jeon Suk-hui typically skips the side dishes and takes her plate straight to the water cooler, drenching her rice with water and slurping it down. Another woman who said she has been on the rotating day-night shift for ten years always keeps some lemon soda in her locker. For a whole month, I never saw her wearing a pair of jeans that were a good fit. Park skips lunch altogether and takes a nap in the locker room. Chronic indigestion is a routine affair for all these women.

“Working the night shift caused my skin to flare up,” Park said, and she sometimes had to put ointment on her skin instead of makeup before coming to work. Shin Ji-ae, 38, a regular worker I met in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, said she had dealt with irregular periods for six months after beginning the night shift. “You know, I’ve always been a night owl. But there’s a difference between staying up all night relaxing and staying up all night working,” she said. She advised me not to live near an elementary school if I intended on staying on the night shift for long. She had been woken up by noisy children outside her window during school hours.

After wolfing down our meals, the locker room turned into a game of minesweeper. So many people were lying down in the locker room (which was basically the only break area) that it was a challenge not to step on them. Stretching out a yoga mat and a small blanket on the floor, I tried to nap for 15 or 20 minutes. But I could only get snatches of sleep because of people excusing themselves as they slipped past me to get to their locker. Ji-suk, who was lying down nearby, tried making a joke as she stared at the ceiling: “Working the night shift, our workday stretches across two weekdays—Monday and Tuesday, Tuesday and Wednesday and so on. I guess working the night shift speeds up the aging process.” The joke didn’t get a response, however, and Ji-suk didn’t seem to have expected one.

A travel suitcase is discarded near a factory dumpster in Incheon’s Namdong District
A travel suitcase is discarded near a factory dumpster in Incheon’s Namdong District

Break time begins with a jog

Once every two hours, I went for a short jog. During break time, the door leading to the locker room became a bottleneck. Assuming that the shuttle bus brought me to work at 8 pm for the night shift, the workday was divided into five periods: 8:30 pm to 10:30 pm, 10:40 pm to 12:30 am, lunch, 1:30 am to 3:30 am, 3:40 am to 5:30 am, and 5:40 am to 8 am. We were basically given about 10 minutes of break time every two hours.

On Mar. 12, we were given new work outfits. Our white antistatic outfits were replaced with blue tops and bottoms, also antistatic, along with a dark gray uniform we had to wear whenever we weren’t on the floor—in the hallway or cafeteria, for example. The old rule had been to remove our antistatic work outfit before leaving the locker room, but now we had to put on the dark gray uniform after removing the work outfit. We have to leave the locker room to go to the bathroom or get some water from the cooler, and it took three minutes to change out of my work outfit and into my uniform, three minutes to go to the bathroom and three minutes to change out of my uniform back into my work outfit. This was particularly irritating for smokers. To have a smoke, they had to go up two floors to the roof. While they were smoking, they had to keep an eye on their watch.

By Ko Han-sol, staff reporter

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

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