Female North Korean Defectors and Women with Disabilities Discuss Tollgate Clerks’ Labor Rights
The Remnants from the Tollgate Clerks’ Fight
Last June, as the tollgate clerks climbed up the canopy of Seoul Tollgate, their [brutal] work conditions were uncovered. The workers went on strike for 217 days, exposing how public sectors had been operating by exploiting contract service workers, and demanding that the Korea Expressway Corporation implement direct employment. Korea Expressway Corporation announced that it would indeed transfer all employees’ status to ‘direct-employed’ but that if the workers lost their worker status confirmation court case, then those who were hired after 2015 would have their direct employment revoked. In February of this year, the workers ended the strike and dispersed. However, this doesn’t mean that the fight is over. We look back at these workers’ struggle that brought to the fore the necessity of making positions in public sectors permanent, and discuss its societal meaning and tasks it leaves for us.—Tollgate Fight Recording Team
A rumor that ‘a North Korean defector dared to want to become a permanent worker’?
In 2019, tollgate clerks had to make a decision on whether to be direct-employed [by Korea Expressway Corporation] or indirect-employed by a subsidiary company. However, it didn’t actually mean that they had an option to decide.
“If we decide we want to be direct-employed, we won’t be able to work, because we will then remain fired. (Korea Expressway Corporation had said it would direct-employ workers only if the Supreme Court ruled that it had to, and the potential date of such a ruling was uncertain. Then in June, it fired 500 workers while starting its own subsidiary company and eventually absorbed many of them into the subsidiary company.) People like us who work each day to get by don’t have the money for that. If we go to the subsidiary company, we may be able to make money, but every year we’ll be stressed out about getting laid off. Of course they (Korea Expressway Corporation) say that that’s not their plan, but [it’s still a possibility and] I’m still not sure how to handle that stress.”
While Jae-eun (false name) was hesitating, a strange rumor started going around.
“The rumor said that they won’t direct-employ North Korean defectors; how dare North Korean defectors try to become permanent workers; if we choose direct-employment, they will make us leave voluntarily.”
Jae-eun and her older sister are North Korean defectors. When she asked her manager about the rumor, all they said was to “ask the office union” and that they don’t know. When she asked the chief administrator whether North Korean defectors could be direct-employed, administrators started to be cautious with their words.
“When I demanded a clear explanation, since we North Korean defectors are also South Korean citizens, they would say that it’s not true. We were extremely stressed because we were demanding direct employment while our manager pressured us to go to the subsidiary company.”
On June 8th, the branch manager reached out to the sisters, who had chosen direct-employment, saying that he’d like to have a meeting with them.
“Because I’m North Korean, I was one of the first people he wanted to appease [because of the government support available for employing us]. The documents had to be prepared by June 10th, so I asked him, ‘Isn’t the Moon Administration saying that tollgate clerks will become permanent workers? Sir, are you saying the government is lying to us?’ And he couldn’t say a thing.”
To service company owners, North Korean defectors are nothing but an ‘extra cash flow’
Jae-eun is the tollgate clerk that was ruthlessly assaulted by the Korea Expressway Corporation and government authorities on September 9th when the Gimcheon Headquarters sit-in began. She was injured and was treated at the hospital due to a resulting infection around her ribs.
Her older sister had come to South Korea first and settled down. Jae-eun followed in 2009 with her husband and daughter. Her sister was already working as a tollgate clerk, so Jae-eun and her husband began working as tollgate clerks starting in 2012 with her sister’s help.
Two years after she started working, she became pregnant with her second child. When she notified her manager at Korea Expressway Corporation’s service company, the response she received was to “quit immediately”.
“They said that they would hire a worker with disabilities instead, since I wouldn’t be able to make them money.”
The manager also kindly let her know that in fact, a few days ago, someone with disabilities had come by the office.
“When a company hires a North Korean defector, the government provides an employment promotion subsidy of 500,000 - 700,000 won for up to 3 years. Because I had worked at a restaurant in Busan for a year before this, this company (Korea Expressway Corporation’s service company)’s owner would receive the subsidy only for two years.
After two years had passed and the North Korean defector employment promotion subsidy ended, the owner was planning to replace her with a worker with disabilities in order to receive the employment promotion subsidy for the disabled. The manager said to ‘think about it from the owner’s point of view.’
“How can you make someone leave just because they’re pregnant? I knew that it’s illegal to fire someone because of their pregnancy. But if I didn’t leave, my sister might have had to leave. I wouldn’t be able to work anyway after the birth, and she lives alone without a family to fall back on, so I just left instead of her.”
But even when Jae-eun left the company, her sister continued to hear the owner say things like “I’m gonna make North Korean defectors leave”. Moreover, she often was scolded by the owner for her North Korean accent.
“My sister worked at the office because she was a manager. She was stressed from the owner looking down on us for not knowing much and asking questions. After work hours, she taught herself how to use a computer.”
The manager couldn’t fire Jae-eun’s sister, whose subsidy had ended, but he harassed her and created stress for her in an attempt to make her quit.
The North Korean defector employment promotion subsidy is a policy that provides a 3-year-long financial incentive to companies hiring a North Korean defector. Korea Expressway Corporation was a company that utilized the government subsidies very well. Due to the subsidy, many North Korean defectors were able to find work, but abuse of the system was also rampant. In 2017, after a public discussion on the issue, the incentive was removed and policies that directly support North Korean defectors were increased.
The fact that the employment promotion subsidies were often abused—just as Jae-eun experienced—was revealed to the world during the tollgate workers’ fight as they spoke up about these issues.
A 5-month-and-9-day-long contract
A year after Jae-eun gave birth to her second child, the office also had some changes. It seemed that workers could no longer stand the service company owner’s intermediary exploitation and unjust treatment. The workers registered to be part of Gyeongnam General Union.
“In 2015, a labor union was created. The union helped us retrieve all the money that the owner had pocketed from us. One day the owner asked Song-suk (chief of the labor union) to recommend a good worker who lived nearby. She reminded him about me, because I have experience working there and I live nearby, and suggested calling me.”
The owner opposed her suggestion, citing Jae-eun’s bad eyesight. But the labor union asserted that “there is no reason to oppose her, because her bad eyesight doesn’t necessarily mean that she cannot collect the fees or see the signs well. Moreover, she didn’t make a single mistake (while working here),” and strongly recommended her.
“But entering the company wasn’t easy, either. When I went to sign the contract, the owner handed me not even a 6-month contract but a 5-month-and-9-day contract. This meant that I wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment benefits after my contract was over. I said, ‘What is this? Why do I have to sign this contract that makes no sense? I won’t sign it!’”
That was when Jae-eun stood up to the owner for the first time.
Fortunately, Song-suk, the chief of the labor union, was working that day at the office. Jae-eun let the labor union know about the 5-month-and-9-day-long contract and asked for help. The owner made excuses saying that “it’s just a piece of paper.” Jae-eun told us, “I just went back to work without signing a contract because I didn’t need a piece of paper.”
The owner also stopped carping at Jae-eun’s sister over every little thing once the labor union was established.
“My sister signed up immediately when the labor union was first created. She thought that we needed more power, and 100 people gathering is more powerful than one person fighting alone. Moreover, we were able to learn more about South Korean society as well as its culture. We needed a reliable fence to protect us.”
Pressured to leave as soon as the incentive term (of the employment promotion subsidy for the disabled) ends
Cho Mi-kyung of the Korean Democracy and Federacy Workers’ Union, who stayed until the very end of the 145-day-long Gimcheon Headquarters sit-in, is a person with physical disabilities.
Mi-kyung made the unusual decision of choosing direct employment just a year before her retirement. At first, she was harassed by Korea Expressway Corporation to join the subsidiary company (over direct employment). But she firmly believed that everyone at Jinan Office where she was working would choose direct employment after signing up to be part of the labor union.
“Eventually I was the only one left behind. I said I’ll go with direct employment because I was fed up with Korea Expressway Corporation.”
Mi-kyung spent 18 years as a tollgate clerk supporting her family and sending her children to school. But for those 18 years she suffered from Korea Expressway Corporation’s abuse of power and exploitation of her as a woman with disabilities. Mi-kyung decided to be direct-employed as if she was determined to shake off all those years of humiliation.
“It’s difficult to get into Korea Expressway Corporation without connections. When I first started working, I realized that everyone was hired through their connections: by knowing the manager, the deputy, the staff, etc. You need that acquaintance and friendship. So in the beginning, I felt so happy because I got in even without any connections.”
Mi-kyung learned about the career opportunities at Korea Expressway Corporation while attending a career fair for people with disabilities and applied. The Korea Employment Agency for the Disabled served as an intermediary. Mi-kyung thought she was so lucky to be able to work as a tollgate clerk.
“Subsidies for hiring people with disabilities depends on his/her disability level, but for me, it was 300,000 won. If I were to work somewhere for three years, the government would provide the incentive to the owner as an employment promotion subsidy. If there are 10 people with disabilities working (in a company), that means 3,000,000 won, all going to the owner.”
According to the Employment Promotion and Vocational Rehabilitation for Disabled Persons Act, a corporation is required to employ people with disabilities at a quota of 3.1% for private enterprises and 3.4% for public institutions. When a business owner exceeds the quota and hires more workers with disabilities, they then receive the employment promotion subsidy for the disabled.
Even though this policy was established to secure employment for people with disabilities, the reality was that the number of workers with disabilities was interpreted as the amount of money the company will receive. These workers were valuable as laborers during that time only.
“Whenever the term of an employment promotion subsidy for the disabled is over, the company either verbally abuses the workers [to make them leave voluntarily] or cruelly fires that worker. They hurt people. I’ve seen it a lot. Then they hire a new person with disabilities and receive the funds again. I thought that program was three years long, but I heard that it’s different now.”
Whenever she completed her three years at a workplace, she was asked to “quit”. Then she would move to a different tollgate office nearby, and the owner of that service company could receive the subsidy funds.
When Korea Expressway Corporation used to outsource the operation of tollgate offices to companies run by its high-level early retirees, these offices were operated through optional contracts (which are not competitive or do not involve bidding). At that time, the contract with a service company lasted for four-to-five years. However, as public sectors started the open recruitment of outsourcing services to bring in competitive bidding to have the lowest unit price, vendors were changed every two years.
Temporary workers faced the threat of layoffs due to service vendors changing every two years. However, for workers with disabilities, that meant they had less of a reason to move around, because the term for receiving the employment promotion subsidy for the disabled (for companies) lasted for two years.
The tasks of tollgate clerks who have disabilities or are North Korean defectors are…
Tollgate clerk workers’ tasks consist of a three-shift system with exit, entrance, and office duties.
Exit duty charges the fee for the distance driven when a driver brings a toll ticket. Entrance duty regulates illegal freight vehicles and enforces operation restrictions and re-examinations. She also guides accident vehicles and ushers vehicles when they enter the wrong lanes or are unable to get the toll tickets from the machine. Office duty handles the billing system, Hi-pass violation vehicles, and vehicles entering driveways improperly. Additionally, she prepares and enters reports for overloaded vehicles as well as systematically managing Korea Expressway Corporation’s guidelines.
The toll fee depends on whether you’re using a discount card for people with disabilities, a discount card for exemptions, or a discount card for veterans. Moreover, even with a card, the fee changes depending on whether the cardholder is in the vehicle or not, and whether the vehicle is registered. Discount rates for five different types of freight vehicles change depending on the time of the day. Discount rates for towed vehicles change depending on the method and location of towing. You are required to memorize all this information.
When there’s a driver without a toll ticket (at the exit office), you have to call the entrance office and confirm the vehicle. If you cannot reach them, you need to convince the customer [to tell you where they entered and pay the correct amount]. There are customers that ask you to put their fees on credit. There are times when clerks forget to receive the actual toll fee after charging the vehicles’ Hi-pass. In those cases, the missing fees come out of the clerk’s pay.
“I was hired last minute at Gyeongju office and got trained for five days. I observed how things work for three days and was put to work immediately. You learn by being put through the wringer like this. People think tollgate clerks’ tasks are simple but that’s not true. I think it should require about three years of training.” (Korean Democracy and Federacy Workers’ Union Tollgate Chapter, Kim Jung-hee, five years at Gyeongju office)
There’s no exception in fulfilling all these tasks whether you’re a person with disabilities or a North Korean defector.
“There was a person with spinal disability as well as many other severely disabled people with prosthetic limbs, for example. This work requires you to run around the road a lot. If you see a vehicle with illegal overloading during your 30-minute break, you need to stop the vehicle on the side of the road, explain the situation, and guide them to make a U-turn to pass (the testing machine) again. If it confirms that it’s overloaded, we need to take photos and call the police. Entrance duty does all this work.” (Cho Mi-kyung)
“At our office, I worked with a person with developmental disabilities for six-or-seven years. (For them) it’s a really difficult work environment unless other non-disabled people are considerate. While it’s not difficult for people with disabilities to just collect the fees, it’s difficult for those that cannot walk well to handle situations on the road. This situation—cars that just take off to avoid paying—happens often. In order to stop the car, you have to run 50-100 meters. Otherwise, you’ll face disadvantages [of compensating for the runaway cars’ fees]. If there was an overloaded vehicle while a person who cannot walk well was working, another person with healthier legs ran out. Even then, we didn’t complain about working with people with disabilities. The problem lay with the service company owners cancelling the contracts of workers without disabilities to hire workers with disabilities (instead, in order to receive the subsidy).” (Kim Song-suk)
North Korean defector workers experienced different sets of difficulties.
“The hardest thing since coming to South Korea was having an accent. It’s upsetting when people ask me if I’m from China. First year here I couldn’t speak. But after a year, I decided to tell people that I’m from North Korea. If I didn’t want to be mistaken [as someone from China], I had to change my accent, but that wasn’t [and still is not)] easy. I just tell people now that I have an accent just like people from different regions in South Korea have accents.” (Jae-eun)
Even in such a short interaction of receiving toll tickets and making payments, customers somehow notice Jae-eun’s North Korean accent. North Korean accents can be stronger in intonation, and this is another reason for people to discriminate against North Koreans.
“It’s been extremely stressful just because I came from North Korea. Service companies and customers often think we’re upset because of our intonation and even file complaints about it. One time, I had to pay compensation because of a false complaint.” (Jae-eun)
Violations of labor rights cannot be resolved only by direct employment
Korea Expressway Corporation was established in 1969. As it is known already, until the early 2000s, tollgate workers’ positions were permanent. Due to the restructuring, outsourcing happened and contract service workers emerged. In 2009, 350 Korea Expressway Corporation offices transitioned into outsourcing their workers. This made intermediary exploitation easy and led to filling the low-paying jobs with women. Moreover, it abused the governmental system of supporting the underprivileged as its profit-making method by taking advantage of the workers with disabilities and workers from North Korea. Public duty drifted further away from being “for the public.”
“When some associations for people with disabilities or human rights centers bring a massage chair to the office where people with disabilities work, wouldn’t you put it in the break room and let the workers with disabilities use it? But the owner would take it. The owner would also take other items (from different organizations) such as electric equipment for moving things, desks, or chairs specifically made for people with disabilities. He would take them all. It’s impossible to say that the office was operated according to the governmental policies.” (Joo Hyun-joo)
Korea Expressway Corporation’s service companies may have hired a number of marginalized people and increased the employment rate by utilizing the employment promotion subsidies. However, can we truly evaluate the outcome just by the employment rate without questioning the environment that people with disabilities and North Korean defectors work in?
“What I realized after working in South Korea for a few years was that I needed to be in a permanent position. I have a young child and future generations [to prepare for], but because I repetitively get laid off and sign new contracts every year, I was desperate to be direct-employed. After the meeting with the branch manager on June 8th, I was more convinced that I shouldn’t join the subsidiary company. After making up my mind to go with direct employment whether I get fired or not, I became a little less stressed out about it.” (Jae-eun).
Jae-eun and her sister were among the 1500 tollgate workers who chose to be direct-employed. These workers fiercely fought for direct employment for 217 days, starting from the Blue House and spanning the Gimcheon Headquarters sit-in. When Jae-eun introduced herself as a North Korean defector to other tollgate clerk workers participating in the strike, everyone welcomed her with wide eyes and an applause, saying, “Wow, you’re amazing!”
She met her true allies. They were her companions that shared joys and sorrows for 217 days, fighting for the common goal of direct employment.
“My sister had been upset because the company owner looked down on her just because she’s from North Korea. So she tried searching around for North Korean defector supporting organizations. But they don’t work with us at our workplaces. They’re far away and don’t really understand the realities of our work environments. So the problems we face at work are not easily resolved.” (Jae-eun)
All along, it wasn’t that (Jae-eun and others) didn’t do anything to solve their problems. It was that they couldn’t find the means to solve them. As a result of the fight, Korea Expressway Corporation confirmed their decision on direct employment and now the workers are waiting for their start date. However, society’s prejudice and discrimination against minorities might not change. One thing that did change was that they gained the confidence to no longer put up with discrimination.
“If I go to the subsidiary company and work a few more years, maybe things will be a bit easier (Korea Expressway Corporation stated that if the workers choose to join the subsidiary company, it will give them the same fare collecting tasks [which may not happen if they are direct-employed], increase their wages, and extend their mandatory retirement age). But I think I’m fed up with their abuse of power. I wanted to fight at least once. I think this might be my only opportunity to do so.” (Cho Mi-kyung)
The reason that she had to fight at least once even though her retirement is so near is that ‘direct employment’ read as ‘abolish discrimination’ to Mi-kyung, and she wanted to show her human dignity. She chose direct employment and fought to change the history of labor rights violations and intermediary exploitations of these service companies.
Instead of dismissing tollgate clerk work as too complicated and difficult for people with disabilities, she wanted to raise her voice together with others and say that we should create work environments that enable people with disabilities to work. The issue doesn’t end with just criticizing the intermediary exploiters’ unethical behaviors. The history of labor rights violations pushed away people with disabilities and passed those [harsh] work environments to people without disabilities. It was a common struggle that both people with disabilities and people without disabilities went through together.
“When I was at the sit-in (at Gimcheon Headquarters), there were many people with disabilities. (…) I think the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions should take on more labor issues for people with disabilities. I don’t think we should neglect human rights issues. It would be a shame if our fight only resolves the direct employment issue and then disperses.” (Kim Song-suk)
-Interview Process and Recording: Tollgate Recording Team (Narang, Siya, Heejung)
Translated by: Seung-a Han
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8720
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English-language blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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