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

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Although the strike was waged for about 500 days, the legal struggle continued until October 2008.
Location and Goals
South Korea
Location City/State/Province: 
To attain status of permanent KORAIL employees, secure safe working conditions, overturn gender inequality in working conditions, end outsourcing of labor

The 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.

In 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.

In 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 KORAIL.

On 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.

In 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.

On 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.

In 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.

Shortly 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Research Notes

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