Nightmares of Our Workplace Men Would Never Imagine
We need feminism in labor unions
※ Editor’s note: In “My Alba Work Story”, Ilda records the real experiences of young women doing alba [part-time, temporary, or side work]. The series receives funding from the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.
At 13, I was sexually harassed at my first part-time job.
Starting from now, I am going to unveil the nightmare—or the reality that I wish was a dream—of our workplace, which men would never dream of.
I was 13 years old when I first had a part-time job. My friends asked me to join them at an amusement park after our finals that semester, but I could not afford the admission fee. One day, by coincidence, I heard one of my friends was making money by distributing flyers part-time, so I went on a part-time job site for the first time. Eventually, I found a job post for flyer distribution for a spaghetti restaurant: “Any age, female, 10,000 won for 2 hours.” And I gave them a call right away.
A young man answered the phone. He asked me how old I was, and I cautiously answered that I was 13. He told me to show up for work the next day. The following day, I went to the restaurant after school in high spirits. I was a little nervous but excited. I was thrilled and proud that I could make money on my own and go on an excursion with my friends with that money. When I opened the door and stepped inside, the man who answered the phone call was at the counter. When I told him that I was there for the part-time job, he asked me:
“Why aren’t you wearing a school uniform?”
“Because it’s hot outside.”
“You aren’t wearing pantyhose then, are you?”
“No, why? Do I have to?”
The man pulled out a pair of pantyhose and asked me to wear it while I worked. He told me it was because of an urban legend: you can pass a certification exam if you have pantyhose worn by a young woman. I was taken aback, but I could not say no. At that moment, I had lost the ability to make judgments about the situation.
He took me to a room where I could change into the pantyhose. It was a tiny storage room. Even though I locked the door, I was still afraid. Fearing that he would enter while I was changing or that there would be a camera hidden in the room, I changed clothes while crouching. Even though I could not trust him, there was no way I could resist him. I was the subordinate who had to make money and he was an older man. If I refused to follow his request, I would lose the job on the spot.
Nor could I think this was sexual harassment. The only types of harassment I learned about from school were direct actions and comments like a strange man grabbing me late at night or saying, “I want to touch your breasts.” And the only response I learned was to “be watchful” or shout, “No! Don’t do that!” So I did not think that asking one to wear pantyhose (and this was in the daytime!) could be sexual harassment. And I felt it was awkward to shout “No! Don’t do that!” at him. Because no one had told me that sexual harassment happens in different places and forms, I had no language to express my disgust.
Moreover, he did not remotely look like the sex offenders I learned about in school. I had never imagined a good-looking young man who runs a decent restaurant could be an “offender.” Eventually, I got a 10,000 won bill from him and gave him the pantyhose I took off in the storage room. I was disgusted and humiliated, but I could not share this story with anyone.
Several days later, my parents found out that I was doing a part-time job instead of studying at the library. My dad asked my whereabouts, and as soon as I answered that I was doing a part-time job to make money, he grabbed me by my arm and dragged me out of the room. “Doing a part-time job? You were doing a part-time job? Get out right now!” He hit the roof and drove me to our front gate. When I was shoved and fell, he started to kick me with no mercy. That night, in a flash, I was thrown out of my home with just a pair of shoes. There was nobody who could protect me. On the street where night had fallen, I wished I could just disappear.
It was my first time seeing my father that furious, and it made me think that I had committed an unforgivable misdeed. I was the only one to blame for being subjected to the “weird incident” on the part-time job and getting beaten by my father. I was at fault for being unaware that what I had experienced was sexual harassment. And I was guilty of telling a lie to make money even though I had no power or knowledge to fight against the harassment. For a very long time, this incident was a very personal and humiliating memory and a trauma that I did not want to call to mind.
If you are reading this and thinking, “We must not allow teenagers to take on part-time jobs,” you are hugely mistaken. I thought circumstances would change when I grew up, but they stayed the same. I still did not know anything, yet I had to work. Throughout my six years of secondary education, nobody had taught me the labor laws, but I had been told to find a good job; nobody had taught me how to stand up for my right to sexual autonomy, but I had been told to be watchful at night and scream when I was in danger. However, once I transitioned into the working world, I had to know my rights in detail.
Commuting in the early morning, I am the only woman on the street.
I started my second part-time job shortly before I turned twenty. After the College Scholastic Ability Test was over, I got a part-time job like all of my friends. It was at a small pub, and my first day at the new job was already going downhill.
“Excuse me, boss, when will I get paid? Will the money be deposited to my account?”
“Why? Are you worried? I will take care of it, so don’t mind it much and just work.”
As I had heard neither of an employment contract nor of the wage payment rules, I had no choice but to trust what the boss said. There were things I was curious or worried about, but as he was an older and stronger man, I was afraid of seeing his facial expression harden.
The boss became more and more controlling as time passed. He began with frowning when I made a mistake, but he eventually started to say “Shit” or “Get out of the way.” Although he did not express anger or nag me out loud, his agitated tone, facial expression, and behavior intimidated me.
At some point, he started to express irritation and anger, saying I was refusing to listen to him. We had agreed that said I would work until midnight, because I was afraid of walking home in the dark. Nonetheless, I could not refuse if he said, “Since we have a big crowd like this, work until 1 a.m.” in an agitated voice. I feared walking down the dark street at night, but I feared the boss even more, as I had to encounter him at work. He had control over my wages, so I always had to dangerously walk the line so that I would not make him angry. He must have been very well aware of my weakness as a woman and a laborer.
So, every day, I had to endure the unsafe work environment and the commute home. Not for even a single day or a single hour could I let my guard down. At the same time, I could not act too sensitive. There was nothing else I could do but fancy that this must be the working world and that everyone goes through this. This may sound absurd, but isn’t the world we live in indeed like this? There is a “potential rape victim”, but talking about a “potential offender” is huge offense. A younger female sibling is asked to return home early, yet an older male sibling is not. A female underclassman should not get drunk while a male upperclassman can.
Once, I left work at one in the morning and something about the street looked odd. There was a young man who was heading to a supermarket and there were drunken middle-aged men, but I was the only woman. I imagined as I watched them. What would it be like to live like that? Even for a day, I would love to go to the supermarket when I am hungry, regardless of the hour; I would love to drink however much I want when I want and still not fear the anything. The only night I was not afraid of being on the street was when I was kicked and thrown out of my home by my father, because that night I had lost all sense of reality, so I felt no one would be sad even if someone came and killed me. These men were living in a completely different world. Hurrying back home, I felt envious of them.
When my payday was approaching, my boss made another part-timer do his job and did not show up at work. And this made me apprehensive. When I had not received my paycheck even a month after the payday, I gave him a call. When I finally got connected to him and asked him about the paycheck, he answered in agitation:
“Hey, it’s normal to wait about a week. Why do you keep calling me?”
He vented his anger, saying it was normal, so I reflexively answered, “I understand” and hung up. But I made several more calls afterward because I still felt something was unfair about it, and I finally told him that I wanted to quit. I finally got paid three days later, but even then, I was not paid for the extra work I had done until early in the morning.
These days were a dark chapter in my life, so I wanted to erase them from my memory as soon as possible. I told people around me that I felt liberated. However, that summer, the sorrow that had been festering burst. One day, I got an opportunity to participate in a psychodrama (an emotional therapeutic technique where clients, with a therapist, simulate a situation and emotion from their past that afflicted them), and I said I wanted to simulate the day I finally got my pay. The agitated voice, stare, and attitude of the man who played the boss reminded me of the horror I felt that day, so I burst into tears. I had not imagined this incident would have bothered me this much, so I felt flustered when the session was over. I just assumed that I might have a pathological fear of adults.
Women at work, finding a point that connects us.
Around then, I learned about the Alba Workers Union. I joined and started to learn about labor law. The more I learned, the more it surprised me. I felt like I was attaining a new language. I learned what rights I have, what laws protect my rights, and how laborers have joined together to put up a struggle for these rights. So, at my following part-time job, I got holiday pay because I asked my boss for it. I was still scared to ask, but I felt like I was being pulled out of eternal helplessness and savoring the feeling of freedom. The “pathological fear of adults,” surprisingly, faded away as I worked with the union and learned labor law.
Nonetheless, I was not entirely free from the pain that workplaces inflict. In spite of the knowledge I had about labor law, I still could not thwart my bosses’ sexual harassment or judgments on my physical appearance . I also needed feminism.
Many of the members of the Alba Workers Union were women. Positions like chairperson and chapter manager were also occupied by women. Through the women from the union, I became familiar with the feminist community little by little. As I started to learn about feminism, even more languages became available to me than when I had learned about labor law. I realized that my experience, in fact, was a shared experience which nobody had been able to talk about, and I became aware that my experience was not personal but political. I started to discover the “reasons” behind the incidents that broke my spirit “without reason.” I could finally allow myself to say, “It was not my fault.”
However, it was not easy to practice feminism in the union. When I said I fight for women’s rights, even the people who were rooting for me while I fought for labor rights expressed discomfort by being silent or asked, “Oh, yeah? But isn’t our society dominated by women these days?” I once met a labor activist who was more experienced than me, and he called the feminist movement a “sub-category movement.” Reflecting on my life, I could never accept such phrasing. To accept it was to deny myself. Even though we were both laborers, there certainly was discrimination and oppression I experience as a “female” laborer. However, it was not their reality, so it was not something they wanted to fight for. But would I really be living the life I deserve as a human being just by being justly compensated and working shorter hours,?
We could not stop speaking up. Like we who were “victims” at Gangnam Station stepped out into the world and became “accusers,” feminists untiringly spoke up in labor unions. We had to speak up about the labor of wearing makeup, about sexual harassment, and about gender equality within the unions. I need a labor union. A labor union is where people together change the world, something that I cannot do by myself. If I cannot speak up about the exploitation and oppression I have experienced as a woman even in this space, we would barely change the world halfway—or not even halfway. Therefore, I had to fight.
I like the expression, “The more we are connected, the stronger we become,” because this is how my life has been. I had to endure troubling helplessness when I had no control over any situation, but now I am dreaming of changing the world. Nothing extraordinary happened in between these miraculously different times. But there has been “us”. There were feminists within and outside the labor unions. There were their voices and actions. Through them, my tiny instinct that started from “something is not right” was awakened. And now it is my turn. Now is my turn to become a point that connects people and to start to speak up.
I want to tell women who have been sexually harassed at work, been called “overly-sensitive” in the labor union, or were unable to flee from domestic violence because of their low wages:
“You are not alone.”
Published: June 14, 2017
Translator: Shyun J. Ahn
*Original article: https://ildaro.com/7905
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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