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!” 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. 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. 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. 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. At that time, Kyonghyang was owned by Shinjin Motor Company which was tied to Park Chung Hee’s military regime. 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. 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.
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.
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.