News vom 08.12.2010
As part of the Lecture Series at the Institute for Korean Studies (IKS) of Freie Universität Berlin, which is organized by DAAD-Star-Professor Hyo-Je Cho, on December 7th labor expert and workers´ movement activist Chun Soonok gave a special lecture on the topic "From dream to reality on South Korea: The social entrepreneur in fashion industry".
Chun began her talk by introducing her connection with the city of Berlin even before the fall of its wall in 1989. Her stay in the city at the time made her awaken to the value of serious study in labour. She then went on to describe her youth, her parents and her siblings including the elder brother Chun Tae-il. Contrary to the general perception her brother was a really cheerful person with compassion for those young workers in garment industry around him. She recalls her brother as a ‘very funny man.’ Although the family was in extreme poverty they cared for each other. Working conditions for textile workers at the time were drastic and harsh. Sixteen hours’ work a day was considered normal and the physical, environmental and psychological depravity of the sweatshops was beyond imagination. As a result young workers died a slow death everyday.
In spite of Tae-il’s earnest effort to improve the condition for his co-workers through legal means (such as Labour Standard Law) every move was either blocked or fell on deaf ears. This eventually led Tae-il to the ultimate and fatal decision—to make himself a sacrifice for all the workers. His death on 13 November 1970 and its aftermaths were a turning point for not only the workers’ movement in Korean but also for his family as well. Tae-il’s mother, Mrs Lee So-seon, became a workers’ activist herself bearing the full brunt of all the hardship. But Mrs Lee did what she did because it was a promise that she made to her dying son.
Chun Soonok followed the path of her brother, working briefly in a factory herself before she took decision to study in Britain. She wanted to know the real causes of things—why workers should live the endless miserable life despite all the difficulties that they had to endure? The study led her to earn a doctorate in industrial relations which was followed by a stint as a factory worker in Seoul, a researcher for labour movement and finally a social entrepreneur in garment industry. She is now running a sort of sewing workers’ co-op—Sudagongbang—which produces good quality costume for high street retailing. The ‘company’ is a collaborative project of thirty skilled women sewing workers and is holding an annual ‘fashion show’ in December. The show is run by workers themselves as well as by celebrities. Chun says the enterprise is gradually ‘reducing’ the level of debt incurred through its operation. She believes that her effort might be just one of many possible alternatives on the part of workers to counter the relentless forces of neoliberal globalization.
Born in 1954 Chun Soonok is related to two personalities who figure prominently in the history of the labour movement in South Korea. Her mother, Yi So-sun, has dedicated her life to the cause of human rights and the establishment of democratic trade unionism.
After years of fruitless protest against the inhumane treatment of the thousands of girls and young women employed in South Korea’s textile and garment industry, Chun Soonok’s elder brother, Chun Tae-il, set himself on fire on 13 November 1970 and sacrificed his life to draw attention to workers’ plight. His dying words were: ‘They are not machines’.
In the spring of 1971 Chun Soonok began work in one of the sweat-shop garment factories in central Seoul herself. Imbued with the notions of democracy and fairness that she inherited from her mother and brother she has, from the beginning, devoted herself to helping those workers most in need. Some of the projects in which she has been involved are indicative both of the focus of her attention and of her experience.
In 1989 with the encouragement and support of her friends and family she came to the United Kingdom to observe workers’ activities in the country and to seek international solidarity for trade unionism. She then embarked upon a programme of academic study that would broaden substantially the scope of opportunity for her to further the cause of the democratic labour movement in South Korea.
Chun received her Ph.D in industrial relations from the University of Warwick in 2001. After returning to Korea Dr. Chun has been teaching, researching and waging campaigns for fair treatment of workers under the condition of economic globalization. Chun is a pioneering figure in raising awareness on a new form of worker-friendly business, and is now leading a social enterprise for workers in garment industry in Korea.