Korean women workers win campaign against unjust working conditions in rail system, 2006-2008


To attain status of permanent KORAIL employees, secure safe working conditions, overturn gender inequality in working conditions, end outsourcing of labor

Time period notes

Although the strike was waged for about 500 days, the legal struggle continued until October 2008.

Time period

February, 2006 to October, 2008


South Korea

Location City/State/Province

Jump to case narrative

Methods in 1st segment

Methods in 5th segment

  • legal action

Methods in 6th segment

  • legal action

Segment Length

5 1/2 months

Notes on Methods

The 500-day strike that was part of this campaign was the longest strike by women workers in South Korean history up until that time.


A single leader or group of leaders cannot be identified. Although the court imposed a fine on the director of KTX attendants, the campaign resulted from grassroots organization and the unified contribution of all female attendants as well as members of their affiliated unions.


Korean Railway Workers’ Union

External allies

South Korean Minster of Labor, Seoul Central District Court, Korea Women’s Association United, Lawyers for Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Korea Women Workers Association United, People’s Coalition for Media Reform, several media outlets, university professors, and members of the literary community. None of the allies were directly involved in the events of the campaign such as the public rallies and hunger strikes.

Involvement of social elites

The Seoul Central District Court ruled in favor of KTX female crewmembers in August 2008.



Nonviolent responses of opponent

no known nonviolent response of opponent

Campaigner violence

No known form of violence displayed by campaigners

Repressive Violence

police raided sit-ins and other forms of demonstrations, arresting participants


Economic Justice
Human Rights



Group characterization

train attendants

Additional notes on joining/exiting order

The order in which the social groups joined the campaign cannot be established. The Seoul Central District Court supported the KTX women workers near the end of their campaign in August 2008. The KTX women workers were supported by the majority of the public throughout their campaign.

Segment Length

5 1/2 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

4 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


2 out of 3 points

Total points

7 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

The Court ruled in favor of the workers, demanding KORAIL to reinstate the dismissed workers and pay a salary of 1.8 million won per month until the court case was settled. However, KORAIL continuously refused to comply with the workers’ demand for permanent status as KORAIL employees as opposed to contracted hires. KORAIL withdrew from signing a labor-management agreement they drafted with the Korean Railway Workers’ Union. Despite their limited success in achieving stated goals, the KTX female attendants maintained their nonviolent tactics throughout the campaign, stirring the support of the public as well as government agencies, nonprofit organizations, as well as legal and academic institutions.

Database Narrative


struggle waged by the KTX Crew Workers’ Branch Union signifies the longest
workers’ rights campaign mobilized by women throughout Korean history. For over
500 days, participants implemented a variety of nonviolent tactics, including
public rallies, marches, sit-ins, tent protests, building occupation, hunger
strikes, classroom lectures, and community outreach efforts.

2004, Korea Railroad Corporation (KORAIL) hired 351 female employees to serve
as attendants on the Korean Train Express (KTX) “bullet trains.” KORAIL, a
national railroad operator, represents the largest public enterprise of South
Korea as the employer of over 30,000 people. The workers were hired
through Hongik-hoei, a subcontractor entrusted with KTX customer service.
Although the workers were offered short-term, temporary contracts, KORAIL
officials assured KTX attendants that they would be offered equal compensation
as regular KORAIL employees. The following year, Hongik-hoei separated from
KORAIL management. Rebranded as KORAIL Retail, the independent subcontractor
now provides in-carriage sale services and attendants to KORAIL.

February 25, 2006, the attendants boycotted wearing uniforms in carriages.
KORAIL blocked their access to trains the following day, forcing all KTX bullet
trains to operate without the service of female attendants. On March 1, 2006,
approximately four hundred female KTX employees initiated a strike against

March 24, 2006, former flagship members protested day and night at KORAIL’s Seoul headquarters
located behind Seoul Station. Approximately 200 workers clad in training suits
and other comfortable attire occupied the hallways of the first to third floor,
spending the nights in sleeping bags. Under growing pressure, KORAIL requested
its subcontractor to hire the protestors as regular workers. Union members,
however, challenged the offer, demanding the status of permanent KORAIL
employees with the equal benefits afforded to civil servants. By the end of
March 2006, KORAIL suspended 70 striking workers. The company stated that the
remaining vacancies would be filled by its new subcontractor, KTX Tour &
Leisure. By September 2006, hundreds of unionized women workers demanded
improved working conditions.

response to KORAIL’s continued refusal to meet the union’s demands for gender
equality, job security, and safe working conditions, 31 union members began a
hunger strike on July 2, 2007. Many union members were rushed to the hospital
two weeks into the hunger strike.

July 13, 2007, a 300-member panel of representatives for Korean Railway
Workers’Union, which comprises of nearly 25,000 KORAIL employees, passed a
resolution demanding the resignation of CEO Lee Chul for his negligence in addressing
the KTX female attendants’ strike. The representatives further demanded the
resignation of Kim Cheon-hwan, the director of KORAIL’s passenger business
headquarters, in addition to the reinstatement of dismissed female workers of
the KTX trains. The union pressured the company to terminate the outsourcing of
jobs through private subcontractors.

December 2007, the Seoul District Central Court ruled that female
crewmembers of the KTX are employees of KORAIL. The court further imposed a 1.5
million won fine, the approximate equivalent of 1350 U.S. dollars, on the
director of KTX attendants for staging an “illegal strike.” The women workers
claimed to be dispatched workers from the train company. KORAIL denied the
assertions, identifying the attendants as contract workers hired through an
outsourcing company. The court’s ruling on the possibility of “illegal labor
dispatching” countered the conclusion of the Labor Ministry, which dismissed
the accusations identifying KORAIL as the real employer, declaring the
contracts to be lawful.

after the court ruling, KORAIL and the Korean Railway Workers’ Union drafted
a provisional labor-management agreement specifying the direct hiring of
contracted workers. Before signing, however, the company withdrew from the
proposal on the basis of CEO Lee Chul’s resignation.

National Human Rights Commission of Korea denounced KORAIL’s treatment of KTX
female train attendants as a direct case of gender discrimination and clear
violation of human rights. KORAIL violated the international standards outlined
in the UN Global Compact to which the company pledged to in 2007. The
commission requested that the striking KTX female employees be granted humane
and just employment conditions. Various government agencies and nonprofit
organizations—, including the South Korean Minster of Labor, the legal
community, several media outlets, 500 university professors, 300 members of the
literary community, the Korea Women’s Association United, Lawyers for
Democratic Society, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Korea
Women Workers Association United, and the People’s Coalition for Media
Reform—challenged KORAIL’s refusal to reinstate striking workers as permanent,
directly hired employees.

August 2008, 5 KTX female attendants staged a sit-in at the top of a steel
tower near Seoul Station. During the same month, the Seoul Central District
Court ruled, again, in favor of KTX female crewmembers. Citing the fact that
KORAIL participated directly in the hiring, training, work evaluation, and assignment,
Judge Lee Dong-myeong of Seoul Central District Court’s 50th civil
agreements division ruled KORAIL as the “de facto employer” of the workers. He
demanded KORAIL to reinstate the plaintiffs and pay a salary of 1.8 million won
(approximately 1620 U.S. dollars) per month per employee until the case was
settled. In October 2008, 34 protesters filed a suit against KORAIL, insisting
their reinstatement. An additional 119 protesters followed suit.


Not known


Ahn, Hyo-lim. “Labor tension brewing at Korea Railway Corp. .” The Korea Herald 17 July 2007: n. pag. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
“Female KTX attendants win ruling on injunction.” The Hankyoreh. The Hankyoreh Media Company, 3 Dec. 2008. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
Jin, Hyun-joo. “Shattered dreams of ‘stewardesses on land’: Bullet train attendants face mass dismissal if they don’t return to work .” The Korea Herald 24 Mar. 2006: n. pag. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
“Korean Female KTX rail attendants win ruling on injunction .” Transport Workers Solidarity Committee. Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, 3 Dec. 2008. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
“South Korean bullet-train stewardesses strike over working conditions .” BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific 25 Feb. 2006: n. pag. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.
Park, Si-soo. “Unending ordeal of dismissed KTZ attendants.” The Korea Times 29 September 2010. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Koren Kwag, 12/04/2011