Sexual Harassment of Alba Workers: “Pretty girl, Why Aren’t You Smiling?”

Requirements that aren’t written in labor contracts

Kim Ha-rin | 기사입력 2022/03/25 [21:12]

Sexual Harassment of Alba Workers: “Pretty girl, Why Aren’t You Smiling?”

Requirements that aren’t written in labor contracts

Kim Ha-rin | 입력 : 2022/03/25 [21:12]

※ Editor’s note: Ilda is recording the real experiences of young women doing alba [part-time, temporary, or side] work. The “My Alba Work Story” series receives funding from the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


At a bakery alba job, feeling on display like a pastry


After the time in middle school when I was too young to get a real alba job and so sadly had to post hundreds of flyers around apartment complexes, I became an adult and could do alba at a variety of places. I’m very good at everything I’ve tried, so I’ve always become close to the business owner or manager and have been offered a lot of promotions – but in the end, I always have no choice but to quit. My socially-assigned gender, the fact that I was a woman just won’t let me be.

The first place I worked as an adult was a bakery near Mapo Station. During the day, the area was a high-class place with tall buildings and hotels, but in the evening the lights of the room salons shone brightly. And the bakery I worked at was right in the middle of them. I thought that I all I would do was ring up and package the baked goods that customers brought to the counter, but I forgot one important fact: people, myself included, seek out bakeries when they’re drunk.


Drunk middle-aged men came in every day. From the moment they entered, they used informal speech without fail, often called us things like “girls”, “eonni”, and “Miss Kim”, and sometimes critiqued our looks, gave us life advice, and even sexually harassed us. Most of them misunderstood that buying baked goods meant they were also buying the employees’ emotional labor and smiles, and the right to sexually harass them. “Pretty girl, why aren’t you smiling? You have to smile while you work,” “How old are you? Where do you live? Why are you working here? You should be studying,” “Want me to help you get another job?”, “I want the prettiest girl to come over here! Pick out a cake as pretty as your face”... It was as if I was also one of the goods on sale. 


It was hard to fight back against sexual harassment that flashed by like lightning. When I heard those kinds of comments, I wouldn’t understand the intent for a few seconds. By the time I did, it was too late to respond. And if I called that customer back and stood up for myself, what would happen to my job? How would I get by next month? What if the customer hit me right there? What if he waited outside for me to finish work and then harassed me? I don’t think there are many people who could ignore such worries and bravely say, “Excuse me, what did you just say? Apologize to me.” Sadly, I couldn’t report the sexual harassment I suffered from customers.


▲ Me in the uniform I would wear at the fast food restaurant. ⓒKim Ha-rin


With sexual harassment by coworkers, the problem is gender-based power


I got tired of the emotional labor at the bakery and started looking for another job. I found one at a fast food restaurant in which I would only have to work in the kitchen. Because the managers were aware that if they sent me to the counter I wouldn’t do an ounce of emotional labor for the customers, I was pretty much able to stay at my grill. It was fast and tiring work, but I thought it would be perfect for me because I wouldn’t have to do emotional labor or suffer sexual harassment from customers. But it turned out not to matter that I could avoid the customers - I still had male coworkers to deal with.


There weren’t many male employees, but they made their presence felt disproportionately. They traded sexual jokes and formed a tight men-only alliance while disparaging their female coworkers. “I want to put her face in an oil drum”, “Is your arm fat real? How can there be so much of it?”, “You have to wear makeup if you want to drive men crazy”, “Guys don’t like it if girls are too skinny, like you”, etc.  They had a good command of a quite a range of stereotypical misogynist language, including verbal abuse, appearance-related insults, and sexually-harassing comments. They would even say, “It was a joke, why are you being so serious?” if I got angry – they were really the stereotypical examples of male entitlement found in classic feminist books.


At the bakery, customers had treated me like a product they could buy, and it wasn’t very different here. I realized that men already think of women as products that they can buy and possess, as objects that they can critique as they please and do whatever else they want with. The power differential between customers and alba workers wasn’t the only problem.


Once, I went drinking with my coworkers. One of the people there was a guy who usually made a lot of misogynistic remarks, and this day was no different - a real festival of drivel from the start. “A woman’s age is like a Christmas cake, you know. I’m not just saying that, it’s been scientifically proven. Once a woman is past 25 [in Korean age], she ages suddenly and her personality gets weird. You guys don’t have much time left.” I never would have dreamed that, in the 21st century, I would hear in real life the classic misogynistic remarks I’d read in books.


I was furious and yelled, “What the hell is wrong with you?” But the other women at the table agreed with him: “That’s right. People say that women start to wither when they turn 25. So we have to get married soon...” My anger turned to misery. I realized, with desperation, that society hadn’t changed as much as I’d thought and that it wouldn’t do so easily now, either.As we were all leaving that night, that man used his drunkenness as an excuse to touch me and put his arms around me. Even though we were on a busy Hongdae street and my other coworkers could see what was happening, no one tried to stop him. Finally, I shouted at him right there on the street. And I yelled at my other coworkers for not restraining him. My handsy coworker said he was just drunk and asked why I was being so sensitive. The others were angry at me for not somehow preventing the whole thing. I still think of that night sometimes. Was I being overly sensitive? Did I overreact, should I just have firmly refused him at the start… these kinds of thoughts gnaw at me.


▲ My night out with my coworkers was a festival of classic misogynistic remarks. ⓒKim Ha-rin


I think that if I had been a regular worker, I could have reported that coworker for sexual harassment. But I was an alba worker, and in a society that makes people embarrassed to do alba, I thought that the system to handle that kind of complaint only applied to “real” workers at big companies. Also, I couldn’t imagine talking to the manager about it because he was close with the harasser, and I didn’t have any evidence. I felt he would probably blame me instead, saying that I shouldn’t drag something that happened in my private life into the workplace. As our sexual harassment prevention “training” consisted of signing a paper, I didn’t know who I could ask for help, or how. 


I had to make a living, I wouldn’t be able to find another job immediately, and I didn’t want to throw away the effort I had put into becoming good at my job, so I didn’t want to quit. And more than anything, I felt that I shouldn’t have to leave because I hadn’t done anything wrong. But my physical and mental condition deteriorated, and I got through the days by taking depression medication. After slowly crumbling like this for a while, one day when I found myself working with my harasser, I suddenly burst in tears.


I left work early that day, and when I got home, I called work and told them I quit. I’d tried to endure the situation but couldn’t. My friends said what had happened wasn’t my fault, and I knew that, too, so I couldn’t understand why I was the only one suffering. I learned that in this society, it’s not the wrongdoer but the person who’s been hurt and can’t stand it who ends up leaving. When I quit, the people that I told about it asked why I was quitting over “such a small problem”. I also heard that the manager who was friendly with my harasser was going around saying that I must have come on to him.


In this way, that incident took away the job in which I’d been sharpening my skills, my workplace relationships, and my health. Workplace sexual harassment as I’d understood it was something that took place in an office, and was committed by a boss abusing his authority. I had no idea I’d encounter it in an alba workplace at the hands of a coworker. He wasn’t my boss, but he was a man. I realized that workplace sexual harassment isn’t based just on positional authority but also on gender-based power. Even between alba workers at the same level, there is a huge gender-based power difference.


Unprotected and invisible female alba workers


Wanting to kill that man, wanting to die, blaming myself, comforting myself – somehow I overcame all these feelings, picked myself back up, and went through several more alba jobs. Now, I’m working at a sex toy shop. The work has been easier than I thought because customers tend to be shy when they come in – except foreigners. Groups of male tourists often see the “sex shop” sign as they pass by and come in snickering, and 10 times out of 10, they engage in sexual harassment. Maybe they get the courage to harass the shop’s workers because they’re in a group, or maybe they think that we’ll put up with sexual jokes because we work at a sex toy shop. Probably both.


▲ The sign I made and posted myself in the sex toy shop. ⓒKim Ha-rin


From flabbergasting comments like “If we give you money, will you put on a sexy show?”, to suggestively moving their lower halves, asking if that is the kind of sex that the shop’s sign refers to, and giggling among themselves. They even sometimes ask if we have sex for money, and if not, if we know any places nearby that do sell sex. I got so angry that I put up some notices. They say that sexual harassment, molestation, and assault will be dealt with through the justice system, and that we are not a sex trade establishment so they should not ask us about that.


When I’d told the store owner that we were having those kinds of problems, he said it was unavoidable. When I put up the sign, he fretted that it would scare away customers. And he told me, as if he were giving me life advice, that I needed to learn how to laugh off all types of situations. It’s a business owner’s duty to ensure the safety of their workers, but far from voluntarily protecting us or even supporting our efforts to protect ourselves, our boss was working against us. Because he hadn’t experienced it, he didn’t think it was threatening, didn’t even recognize it as a problem. I realized that this was how the problems that female alba workers face have been continually erased.


The threats, fear, and hardships that we endure in our everyday lives as women also exist in alba work. Socially, both alba work and women’s work are neglected, which means that the lives of female alba workers are largely ignored and the difficulties we face are not taken seriously.  


I’ve had to smile and do emotional labor that wasn’t in my labor contract, and I’ve often been treated like a product in a display. Tolerating the abuse coming at me from customers and coworkers, conquering my self-blame, and keeping myself from crumbling never seems to get any easier.


I don’t want to live a life of enduring things anymore. I want to stop being a target who’s always on the defensive and become an active agent living a new life. To be honest, while writing this article, I started to feel like I was just listing all the things I’ve been through, and it made me feel powerless for a minute. But then I felt hope that writing it is one way of becoming an active agent – maybe this article will become a kind of testimony that can awaken awareness or sympathy in others.


*Original article:

Published Jul. 29, 2017

Translated by Marilyn Hook


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