Which country are you less impressed with?

Less money and more suicides

In February trade unionist Kim Jin-suk (61) led a protest march through South Korea: She had marched for more than 30 days, 400 kilometers from the industrial city of Busan to the capital Seoul; Hundreds had joined along the way. When she stood in front of the President's office, she was just ignored. “Moon Jae-in claimed he was the president who protects the jobs. He's probably not, ”Kim Jin-suk says later. But the protest march caused a stir, because Kim Jin-suk is not just anyone, but an icon of South Korea in the struggle for equality. "In Korea everything is once again being passed on to the workers," Kim complains. "And especially the female ones!"

To hear such conflicts from South Korea these days may come as a surprise at first sight. Since the pandemic took its global course, hardly any other country has impressed the world as much as this one. Thanks to rapid, decisive action, South Korea has been relatively little affected by the pandemic to this day. The country has only around 90,000 infections and 1,600 deaths. Even the economy contracted only slightly by 1.1 percent in 2020.

But here too the pandemic has created losers. And according to union leader Kim, these are above all the already vulnerable groups. Kim's personal case shows that this is nothing new. "I was fired from the Hanjin heavy industry in 1986 as a young woman after I was unionized," she explains. To date, women are systematically disadvantaged and, as soon as they become uncomfortable, fired as soon as possible.

"Covid-19 has exacerbated South Korea's gender inequality," is the title of an essay by Troy Stangarone, director of the Korea Economic Institute of America. Even before the pandemic, women were precariously employed around twice as often as men and lived in income poverty, but the situation has worsened. On the one hand, they are increasingly working in industries that are affected by overload due to the pandemic: hardly a quarter of doctors are women, but around 94 percent of the other workers in the health sector are women.

On the other hand, female workers are particularly affected by job losses. "Women make up the majority of the workforce in the education, transport, hotel, restaurant and catering industries," reports Stangarone. There have been significantly reduced jobs. And not enough: women with partners also do most of the housework at home.

In an international comparison, too, the discrimination against women in South Korea is striking. In the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, which compares gender equality in the areas of labor market, education, politics and health, the country currently ranks 108th out of 153. Women in South Korea are now just as well educated as men and have the same access to health services. However, the sexes are treated particularly unequally in politics and on the labor market. Employers often assume that a woman will leave the job anyway due to pregnancy. So you invest less in their training.

And in this pandemic, the inequalities even show up in suicides. So far, statistics have shown that men commit suicide around twice as often. Women, on the other hand, try more often. And they seem to be catching up. In the first half of 2020, during the pandemic, the number of successful suicide attempts suddenly skyrocketed. Kim Jin-suk and Troy Stangarone see important reasons for the socio-economic disadvantage.

Ever since South Korea changed from an agricultural country to an industrial nation in the post-war decades, there has also been a fight for equality here. And women have been one of the driving forces from the start. In addition to Kim Jin-suk, one of the role models is the trade unionist Kim So-yeon, who worked for the electronics company Kiryung. When she had organized protests for years after the turn of the millennium in order to obtain regular jobs for the precarious employees, she was also fired. The case made big headlines, partly because it led to a hunger strike.

When the left-wing liberal Moon Jae-in was elected President of South Korea four years ago, he promised a reduction in precarious jobs. Today every fourth job is temporary - a good twice as often as the average in industrialized countries. Women are twice as likely to be affected by this. But Moon's attempt to remedy this through publicly funded agencies has hardly been successful. "Maybe that's why he doesn't want to speak to me," says Kim Jin-suk. It's not because the two don't know each other: As a lawyer, Moon Jae-in once represented the interests of trade unionists who work closely with Kim.

nd journalism from the left thrives on the commitment of its readers

In view of the experience of the corona pandemic, we have decided to make our journalism permanently freely accessible on our website and thus make it available to everyone who is interested.

As with our print and epaper editions, every published article contains our work as an author, editor, technician or publisher. It is what makes this journalism possible.

Volunteer now with just a few clicks!