On November 13, 1970, Jeon Tae-Il, a Korean sweatshop worker, burned himself to death in protest over the sweatshop conditions of he and his fellow workers. This is the foundational moment in South Korean labor history and also representative of the horrible oppression that any workers around the globe face in the sweatshops that still dominate the apparel industry today.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, the nation of South Korea was both poor and ruled by U.S.-backed dictators. As it was in America’s interest to build up its Asian allies, it consistently backed international opportunities to do this over protecting the jobs of American workers. This means it encouraged companies to outsource production to nations such as South Korea and it created laws favorable to imports to help grow these economies. By the late 1960s, South Korea had a successful little textile industry that was growing pretty rapidly.
Not surprisingly, working conditions for the Korean workers were awful. Tuberculosis was a huge problem for people unfortunate enough to toil away in these cold and cramped workplaces. Ventilation in the sweatshops was nearly nonexistent and Korea is not a nation of moderate weather–it can get very cold in the winter and very humid in the summer. Workers were forced to work overtime without pay to fill contracts. Moreover, as you could imagine, working overtime day after day makes you really tired. So what to do about that? Forced injections of amphetamines!
Jeon Tae-Il was a tailor. He was young, born in 1948 in Daegu. His family had fled the North Korean invasion, heading down to Pusan like so many other Koreans. After the war, they moved to Seoul, where they hoped to find economic opportunities. They started life there by sleeping under a bridge. But they slowly built themselves up. His father eventually owned a sewing workshop. Jeon Tae-Il was able to attend elementary school and the family lived in something that looked like a real house. But in 1960, when the student movement overthrew Syngman Rhee, his father got caught in the middle. Basically, he had an order from the government to make school uniforms. But he had to front all the costs himself. In the chaos of the government changing, the order was cancelled and Jeon was ruined.
Jeon dropped out of school eventually to help support the family. He worked on the streets for awhile, but around 1965, he got a job in the growing sweatshop industry, knowing something about sewing because of his family business. He worked in the Pyung Hwa Market in Seoul, where a lot of these sweatshops were located. There were about 20,000 workers laboring there. Jeon actually did pretty well. He was promoted to become a technician and got a significant salary bump, enough to start drawing the family back out of poverty.
Most of the workers were teenage girls, as they so often are in the global sweatshop industry where nothing has changed between the Triangle Fire and today except for the location. The average day was 15 hours, starting at 8 AM and ending at 11 PM, thus the forced drugs. At most they had one or two days off a month, just the occasional Sunday. They were often hungry because the wage did not pay enough to fill yourself up.
Jeon started to complain about these conditions and organize his fellow workers to fight for change. Jeon’s movement did start something in Korea. Workers became interested. This was in 1968. He and his fellow workers decided to organize a union to fight for their own rights, based on the nation’s actual labor law that the employers routinely ignored.
But to do so was to attack Park Chung-Hee, the American toady who ruled with an increasingly iron fist over his people. At the moment Jeon and his colleagues began actively protesting the conditions of their lives, Park’s popularity was plummeting; after his 1971 very close re-election where he lost Seoul and the other industrial sections of the nation, he declared martial law and would rule with an iron fist until his assassination in 1979. So Park was not interested in these protests over labor conditions. For him, they were a threat to his regime. Officials from the nation’s Labor Department went to Jeon and told him he was unpatriotic for protesting against Park, which how the government interpreted all of this. Jeon was fired.
In 1970, Jeon was rehired. At this point though, he was very angry. He continued to organize. Moreover, he started investigating the conditions of the industry himself. A well-read young man, he collected documentary material in hope of getting the media to run some stories on this. He first took all his materials to a radio station, but they blew him off. But then one of the nation’s leading newspapers, Kyonghyang Sinmun, ran a huge story on the conditions in the sweatshops based on Jeon’s work. The article gained nationwide attention. Jeon and his fellow organizers bought hundreds of copies to distribute to workers. They tried to hold a rally but the police would not let them.
Jeon Tae-Il had a response. He walked out onto a street in Seoul, doused himself in gasoline, and set himself on fire. Burning to death, he started running shouting slogans such as “We workers are human beings, too!” “Guarantee the Three Basic Labor Rights,” and “Do not let my death be in vain” until he finally collapsed and died. While running, he held a copy of Korean labor law in his hand to demonstrate how the government was not following its own legal codes.
This shocking event provided Park’s regime an even greater challenge. In some ways, this is the beginning of the modern Korean labor movement. Unions formed and newspapers ran more stories on the working conditions in the nation, or at least they tried until Park ordered a news blackout on all labor issues. This all contributed to Park’s martial law declaration two years later.
In many ways, the events of this time still frame Korean politics. Over 40 other Korean leftists or reformers or protesting students would set themselves on fire as an act of resistance over the next two decades. Very slowly, life in Korea began to improve for workers. Some of this was of course larger economic structural shifts that moved South Korea into one of the world’s most developed nations, but there was also an increasing realization that radical resistance would develop to the nation’s elite if wages and working conditions did not improve and over time, they did.
Park’s awful daughter Park Guen-Hye became president in 2013 and was there for four years before she was impeached and placed in prison for a 25 year sentence for massive corruption. In 2012, Jeon’s sister Jeon Sook-Ok was elected to the Korean National Assembly, which was the main opposition party to Park Guen-Hye. Moreover, Jeon’s movement and act of personal sacrifice is a major cultural touchstone in the nation. Park Kwang-Su made a 1995 film called A Single Spark about him. Lee So-Sun’s 2012 documentary Mother is about Jeon’s mother. A 2001 biography of him topped the Korean bestseller list. Even today, workers who are fighting for new rights go to the statue erected to him as a natural place to end a protest march, as this 2016 minimum wage action did.
Things did eventually change for Korean workers. But the sweatshops just keep finding new nations with poor workers to exploit. This continues to lead to massive resistance, often after moments of death. From Vietnamese workers setting their own factories on fire to the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, the horrifying conditions of work to produce the clothing you wear every day routinely leads to death and destruction.
This is the 336th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.