Three Days in Sweatshop

Hidden Labor: The Women of Small-Scale Subcontracted Workshops

Yun Chun-sin | 기사입력 2021/04/27 [21:33]

Three Days in Sweatshop

Hidden Labor: The Women of Small-Scale Subcontracted Workshops

Yun Chun-sin | 입력 : 2021/04/27 [21:33]

Editor’s note: In collaboration with a women workers’ writing group, Ilda is publishing a series examining the previously ignored work and lives of female laborers. In this—the first—article, group member Yun Chun-sin writes about her experiences at a small-scale subcontracted workshop, in the style of a memoir. This series is being produced with support from the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


It was early January of last year.


I had gotten a job at a factory that was three bus stops from my house. On my first day, I didn’t take the bus. I didn’t want to waste the money on a trip that only took 30 minutes by foot. Hunched over against the cold and with my packed lunch under my arm, I walked with short, quick steps. The midwinter wind chilled my legs even through my long underwear. That’s what being 51 years old was like, I supposed. The realization that my body was following my age made me melancholy. 


The manager came out to greet me. I followed him as he pushed open the doors to an office that probably used to be a neighborhood shop. The work area was in a basement room behind the office. After descending one flight of musty, dimly-lit stairs, I stopped short at the top of another. A stench that seemed to penetrate every pore. The intermingling smells of chemicals and adhesives made me afraid to continue down. Four thousand won [3.75 USD] per hour. I suddenly realized the true nature of the “simple assembly line work” I was to do.


I couldn’t tell myself the lie that this work was valuable. I wanted to fling away the bag with my lunch in it and run away. Four thousand won, working until 9 p.m., even weekend work. Listening as the manager explained the schedule that would net me 1.4 million (1,300 USD) a month, the wretchedness of my life made me nauseous.


Inside the fluorescent-lit workroom two women were sitting like a still-life painting, working with their heads bowed. I sat between them at the wooden table that ran along the sides of both walls. A quick look told me that they were migrant workers of about half my age. Neither of them so much as glanced in my direction.


▲ The work was taking the Styrofoam compression pad that goes inside a car seat and applying to it a large double-sided sticker of the same shape. This picture has nothing to do with the content of the article. (pixabay)

The work was taking the Styrofoam compression pad that goes inside a car seat and applying to it a large double-sided sticker of the same shape. It was easy and uncomplicated. The manager was explaining it, saying I would master it in an hour, when I asked him, “How does ventilation... isn’t there an air purifier?”


“I left the door open, didn’t I?”


He spat out his reply and walked out of the workshop.


Damnit. I kept the curse down with difficulty. A workshop with no wndows, let alone a bathroom. I laughed mirthlessly at the thought that I was in a position to be choosy about my work environment.


People who have the ability to renegotiate their wages every year, people who talk about the economic losses that our country suffers because of strikes, the manager who said he left the door open, irregular workers who claim the right to be treated humanely, and I, a person who can’t even afford a meal—we are like different species of human.


Chht...pat pat pat. After an hour, the sounds made by peeling off the stickers and attaching them to the compression pad were drowned out by footsteps.


Following behind the manager was a woman around my age. She sat down behind me and learned the work process like I had. I thought the manager, who had just taught her the work and left, was rude for not introducing her.


The woman didn’t seem to hear me when I invited her to eat lunch with me in the office. It wasn’t until I touched her shoulder as she was standing up that I realized she had a hearing disability. She, I, and the two other women who were each from different countries couldn’t really talk with what we had at our disposal - our expressions and the words eonni, rice, money, and fast. None of us stopped working at 5. It seemed like I would suffocate from the chemical smells filling the factory.


On the second day, I came prepared. I wore a face mask and a thick jacket, because I felt bad for having kept pulling the only heater towards myself the day before. I put on an extra pair of socks like my Vietnamese coworker, who stuck her feet out to show her flowery outer socks.


When my temples started throbbing I took the headache medicine I had brought, but I couldn’t shake off the heavy feeling in my head and eyes. I left my seat at 5 that evening, nodding my goodbyes, and did the same the next evening—and that was it. I gave up on that job after three days.


The manager said he would deposit my pay three months later. Three months later it was spring. As spring deepened, the money never came. The manager was panting and his breathing was ragged over the telephone. He said that not telling me that he couldn’t pay me if I quit early was a careless mistake. When he tried to pass it off, claiming that the manager would take care of it, I sprang up.


I ran towards the factory like I was possessed.


I could see the manager through the office’s open door. He was boxing up the finished products. He wouldn’t look at me. In a space so small that three or four more people would have filled it, I stared at him, my eyes like knives. I asked what their corporate registration number was. The manager’s face twisted. “Why? So that you can make a complaint? Who would listen to you? Lady, at your age you should be ashamed of working at a place like this. Working for a few days and coming for your money.” The manager made the disadvantages I faced into my faults. My desire to work in a safe environment and receive even a minimum of pay stood on the edge of a precipice. I had no more space to retreat to.


I spoke each word sharply. “You’re right. I came because I’m uneducated old, pathetic, and I needed the money. I have to get that money. If you don’t transfer it right now, I’m going to rip off all of the stickers that I stuck on.” I was flinging mud.


I counted the minutes in front of the ATM at the intersection near the factory entrance. 96,000 won transfer from X Bank. It didn’t include pay for the overtime I had worked, and the price of my meals had been taken out. I didn’t recognize myself as I consoled myself by thinking I was lucky to get that much.


If there’s enough food to share, you shouldn’t take someone else’s portion, too. The fact that some people get to eat and others don’t made me sad. That day, I went hungry.


By Yun Chun-sin

Translated by Marilyn Hook

*Original article:



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