20 Years after the Asian Financial Crisis, Remembering the Women Who Lost their Jobs
“Banda’s Story of Surviving Illness”: Comfort for your pain and sacrifice
※ The “Banda’s Story of Surviving Illness” series attempts to find the wisdom and strength to overcome illness by imagining and discussing from every angle how it is experienced and can be analyzed.
The story missing from articles about the 20th anniversary of the crisis
This year, there has been a slew of articles about the 20th anniversary of the Asian financial crisis. When I hear “Asian financial crisis”, I think of that woman’s stone-like shoulders. I met her at a “body workshop” for women with health problems. It was a movement workshop somewhere between dance and yoga, meant to be a time to exam your mind by moving your body.
The workshop’s instructor said that the spine is an autobiography engraved in the body. So she told us to plant our feet on the ground like trees put down roots, and stand firmly. Then, we were supposed to slowly bend our heads toward the floor, feeling each bone of our spine. After doing that a few times, she asked us to bend one more time and try to bring back the memories associated with each bone. A lot of memories that had been forgotten suddenly surfaced.
My partner said that she wasn’t sure what to say, and closed her eyes for a moment. She was in her 50s, about 10 years older than me, and just a glimpse at her dark complexion and disheveled hair told me that she was unwell. After a moment, she began to speak. She said she remembered her coworkers’ stares piercing her back when she kept coming to work after being asked to quit during the Asian financial crisis, the discomfort in her back as a supermarket cashier who had to stand all the time, the pain of twisting her back while cleaning a barbecue grill at the restaurant where she worked as a day laborer, and the heaviness in her shoulders as the head of a household that included a child. And she said that what had made it possible for her to keep on living on the night after she’d accepted the layoff and left her workplace for the last time was the warmth she felt when she carried her child on her back.
A little while later, the instructor told us to bend our heads toward the ground and feel the bones of our spine again while our partners watched. My partner’s spine didn’t bend and rise bone by bone, but all at once. When she saw me do the move, my partner said that I looked flexible and that she envied me. I wonder if my spine was more pliable because I had come to understand my life experiences using language like “gender hierarchy”, “structural inequality”, and “social discrimination”. The feelings that we can’t resolve and the experiences that we can’t interpret remain in our bodies as rage and sadness.
Then it was time to delicately massage the muscles of each other’s shoulders with our fingertips. Just as the bones of her spine moved altogether like a rod, I couldn’t feel any elasticity or muscle texture in her shoulders; they were hard like stones. I was a little surprised by this, and I asked her whether her shoulders hurt often. She smiled faintly and said that when she went to the oriental medicine clinic, the acupuncture needles wouldn’t even go in right. I wondered if the heaviness of her burdens had slowly turned her shoulders to stone, or whether it was being hard like a stone that had saved her, had allowed her to survive.
As the instructor brought the workshop to a close, she asked us to each say a word or phrase that we associated with our bodies. My partner said, “Asian financial crisis.” I was surprised again by her voice and how it managed to imbue those syllables with so much heaviness. A few of us, including her, went out to eat after the workshop. None of us had ever met before, and none of us went to that workshop for the purpose of hearing that woman’s heartbreaking story, but somehow, naturally, we all became willing listeners.
Women were the first on the layoff chopping block
Her husband, however, couldn’t find another job, and began to drink. And he became violent, accusing her of looking down on him because she was “making a few bucks”. As she had to support both her husband and child, she was doing bookkeeping on weekdays and working as a supermarket cashier during the weekends. And then she had to quit the bookkeeping work after just a few years, when the company could no longer pay her. She proceeded to work at a department store, a call center, and an insurance agency.
Getting a new job was hard each time, and she also struggled with her working relationships and frequently found herself in interpersonal conflicts. From the time she was laid off during the crisis, she repeatedly suffered from depression, but she endured it somehow and kept working. Her household never ran out of money, not even once. And a few years ago, in the same year her child began university, she had surgery for breast cancer. A little after that, she also had surgery for uterine cancer. There’s no place in her body that is healthy. She believes that her life wouldn’t have turned out quite like this if the crisis hadn’t happened.
She told us that she wasn’t sure who she was supposed to blame for her troubles, and that maybe because of that, she blames herself. She hates herself for everything - for being born female, for letting her older brother go to university instead of her, for not divorcing her husband. She wishes she had screamed out loud in her workplace that her layoff was unfair, and regrets her foolishness in only taking care of her husband and child, and neglecting herself, during her lifetime of hard work. Her body, now disease-ridden, is exhausted.
While listening to all this, I felt my heart breaking for her. Disrespected by society and unable to protest the injustice she had suffered, her anger seemed to have been absorbed inward. For her, the Asian financial crisis was a symbol of injustice.
Social pressure to ‘lift your husband’s spirits’
The IMF bailout program began 20 years ago in November. The situation was then called the hwan-ran [exchange rate crisis], and it was scarier than the wae-ran [Japanese invasions] or ho-ran [Manchu wars]. The restructuring demanded by the terms of the bailout was a process of sacrificing workers to restore and expand the capitalist order. Massive layoffs were made in the name of urgent business needs, and household economies collapsed. But the pain wasn’t shared by everyone equally. Businesses told women, “You’re not married, so just get yourself a husband,” “You’re married, so your husband will support you,” “You and your husband both work here, so you should leave,” “You’ve taken childcare leave, so you should go back home to your kid.” The layoff blade was pointed first at women.
According to a report (“Actual Condition of Women Dismissal and Policy Tasks”, 1999) from the Special Presidential Commission on Women formed around that time, the main group that lost their job because of the IMF-required restructuring were female office workers in their twenties working in businesses of more than 300 people. Among office workers, 9.7% of men and 43% of women who changed jobs around that time did so involuntarily because of layoffs. And the percentage of female office workers who were laid off rose from 13.4% in the latter half of 1997 to 43.7% a year later.
Despite all this, the social mood at the time, only concerned with men being laid off, was busy comforting “fathers with bowed heads”. The media repeated over and over that women needed to reduce household spending by being thrifty, take good care of their husbands to keep their spirits up, and help the family finances by getting a job. Women worried that if they got a job, it would depress their unemployed spouses, and that if they were unable to, they would be treated poorly as “incompetent wives”. Also, spousal abuse was reported to have rose sharply during the crisis, as husbands vented the pain they felt from losing their jobs on their wives.
Unacknowledged discrimination and suffering turn into illness
Our health is affected by our employment, income, relationships, education, housing, welfare services, neighborhood, etc. And, especially in a capitalist society in which survival depends on earning money, being laid off has a very direct effect on a person’s health. Studies show that workers’ blood pressure and likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease rises when even the possibility of being laid off increases. The less stable someone’s employment is and the lower her wages, the worse her health tends to be. Also, the less control she has over her life and the more discrimination she is subjected to, the worse her health will be.
Since 80% of households experienced a drop in income in the wake of the IMF bailout, it was clearly a difficult and painful time for many citizens. According to one study that compared citizens’ health in 1998 to what it had been in pre-cris 1995, the contraction rates of all illnesses, acute illnesses, and chronic illnesses were 2.8 times, 2.2 times, and 1.9 times higher, respectively (“Changes in the Disease Contraction Rate, Use of Medical Treatment, and Death Rate Before and After Korea’s IMF Economic Crisis” Song Yeong-jong, 2000). But it is not very meaningful to say that everyone had a hard time. Yes, everyone had a hard time, but we need to talk about why more sacrifices and suffering were required of some people, and how those experiences affected their lives. If we as a society don’t discuss and document these problems, this history of exploitation is likely to repeat itself.
Throughout this year, there have been countless press reports and expert opinions on the subject of the 20th anniversary of the crisis. But very little of this has dealt with the female workers who were forced to shoulder its heaviest burdens, and that makes me suspicious and angry. If South Korea recovered quickly from the Asian financial crisis, it is because it stepped on the backs of these victims. The women who played the roles of the safety valve, the airbag protecting society against danger, had no choice but to absorb that suffering into their bodies, and as time passed, it materialized physically as pain and illness that each one had to suffer by herself.
When society refuses to acknowledge a person’s unjust suffering, it is easy for the suffering to permeate her body and become disease. The fact that women and other minorities group have poor health is clearly the result of discrimination. Though it is said that women have a longer average life span, reports that their health span is not longer than men’s are likely related to the fact that many women have to go through life absorbing social discrimination into their bodies.
To these women whose lives and bodies have been in pain because of women-first layoffs and forced sacrifices during the period of the IMF bailout 20 years ago, I send the little comfort I have to offer. I want to make sure you know that your suffering and illnesses were not your individual fate, but the results of social discrimination and violence.
Published Nov. 20, 2017
Translated by Marilyn Hook
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8057
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