While I was in Korea last month, I visited a small memorial hall that honors the life of a young garment worker named Chun Tae-il who, in protest, set himself on fire on 13 November 1970 as he cried, “Observe the labor law! We are not machines!”[1] His body was engulfed in flames in the middle of the Pyeonghwa market in Dongdaemun, Seoul – the center of the country’s textile and garment district in the 1970s. He was 22.

When he was 18 years old, Chun Tae-il began to work as an apprentice at a sewing factory and became a tailor. He witnessed abhorrent working conditions – where young female workers between 12 and 15 years old worked more than 16 hours a day in rooms filled with fabrics and sewing machines with little ventilation or light.[2] The work rooms were small, often with lofts built in to maximize space, and ceilings so low the workers couldn’t stand upright.

In an effort to improve the lives of workers, he formed an organization called 바보회, the Society of Fools with 10 like-minded tailors.[3] They called themselves fools because workers hadn’t exercised their rights despite the Labor Standard Act. They studied labor law, educated themselves and their fellow workers, and surveyed the conditions of the sweatshops – working hours, occupational diseases, holiday work, and wages – collecting actual evidence of the daily gruesome reality of the garment workers.[4] Chun thought that providing this evidence would draw attention to and convince the media and the Ministry of Employment and Labor of the plight of workers. However, the labor law was only on paper and completely unenforced.

While there was no response from the Ministry, a month before Chun’s death in 1970, Kyonghyang newspaper ran a story titled “골방서 하루 16時間 노동”(“Working 16 hours a day in an attic”) as a main story for the paper’s Society Section.[5] At that time, Kyonghyang was owned by Shinjin Motor Company which was tied to Park Chung Hee’s military regime.[6] Thus, this was a defiant act by media workers since the story was a direct attack on the regime that was at that time cracking down on labor movements.[7] After publishing the story, the editors of the newspaper were called into the Ministry of Culture and Public Information and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and admonished to stop running stories about labor.[8]

Despite Chun’s ceaseless pleas to the Ministry and the media, there was little hint of any change. Chun’s final act was the ultimate public protest and cry for justice; it helped initiate the radical Korean labor movement that developed in the coming years, and spurred a broader alliance among workers, students, and intellectuals that converged in labor uprisings and the broader democracy movement in the 1980s.[9]

Today, the story of Chun Tae-il may seem like part of a bygone era as South Korea ranks as the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 13th largest economy in the world. Instead of sewing machines and sweatshops, the country is known now for mobile phones, semiconductors, 5G, automobiles, and ships and is an exporter of globally popular K-pop culture and entertainment.

However, the dazzling electronics and glamorous Korean lifestyle shown in Korean dramas conceal the reality of the majority of workers in Korea, who are overworked and underpaid with an increasing intensity of life-struggle.[10]

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korean workers worked an average of 1,901 hours in 2022, the fifth-longest behind Chile among OECD member countries.[11] And if this wasn’t enough of a stress on workers, the current conservative administration has attempted to extend maximum weekly working hours from 52 hours (40 hours and up to 12 hours paid overtime) to 69 hours to pander to corporate interests. Although the plan had to be aborted due to public outcry, the Korean Supreme Court did recently rule that overtime should be calculated on a weekly rather than daily basis. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions criticized the decision, arguing that there was nothing in the ruling which would preclude someone from working 2 consecutive days of 21.5 hours with only 30 minute breaks every 4 hours.[12] Though this varies by sector, on average 38 percent of all workers in Korea are classified as irregular workers who can be easily laid off with scant benefits or legal protections. [13]

On 6 October 2023, Bang Young-Hwan, a taxi driver and labor organizer, set himself on fire just as Chun Tae-il had done over 50 years before. He did so in front of the Haesung Transportation Company where he worked, after protesting for over 200 days demanding to be paid back wages and that the company implement a salary system to guarantee drivers’ basic income.[14]

After more than half a century, a small war-torn country has embellished its public image and moved up the value chain of the global capitalist system; however, workers in Korea are still fighting for a basic livelihood and human dignity with the cry, “We are not machines!”

[1] Part 3. Chun Tai-il’s Action, Chun Tai-il Memorial Hall. Also, listen to the Working Class History podcast on Chun Tai-il and his mother, Lee So-sun.

[2] Part 2 Chun Tai-il’s Perspective, Chun Tai-il Memorial Hall.

[3] 바보회와 삼동회, Chun Tai-il Memorial Hall.

[4] Part 3. Chun Tai-il’s Action, Chun Tai-il Memorial Hall.

[5] 정용인, “경향신문이 보도한 “골방서 하루 16시간 노동,” 주간경향, November 16, 2020.

[6] 이재국, “박정희 62년 ‘경향신문 인수’시도, 경향신문, July 24, 2005

[7] 원성윤, “전태일 열사 분신 한달 전 청계피복 참상 전한 기자 있었다,” Journalists Association of Korea, November 9, 2011.

[8] Ibid.

[9]John Minns, “The Labor Movement in South Korea,” Labor History, 81 (November 2001); Hangen Koo, Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Cornell University Press, 2018)

[10] Gwiran Park, “Stop the Flow of Goods and Change the World: Korean Truckers Lead Global Campaign on Safe Rates,” Asian Labor Review, September 21, 2023; Steven Borowiec, Workers at ‘South Korean Amazon’ protest ‘boiling pot’ conditions, Aljazeera, August 2, 2022; Jung-a Song, Coupang’s New York listing clouded by worker deaths, Financial Times, March 8, 2021; Cho San-Hun, “Delivery Workers in South Korea Say They’re Dying of ‘Overwork,’” New York Times, December 15, 2020,

[11] Hours worked, OECD, 2022; Su-Hyun Lee and Tiffany May, “Go Home, South Korea Tells Workers, as Stress Takes Its Toll,” New York Times, July 28, 2018.

[12] 엄민재,”정부, “주 40시간” 행정해석 변경…노동계 반발,” SBS News, January 22, 2024, ; “하루에 21.5시간 씩 일하라는 고용노동부의 연장노동시간 기준 변경,” 민주노총, January 22, 2024.

[13] L Yoon, “Share of regular and non-regular workers in South Korea in 2022,” Statista, September 5, 2022.

[14] 조연주, 방영환 열사 마지막 염원 지키려···민주노총, 전국곳곳에서 “택시월급제 시행 촉구” 노동과세계, January 9, 2024 ; 강석영, “고 방영환 택시노동자 장례 해 넘기나,매일노동뉴스, December 27, 2023.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *