In social work, male employees face discrimination

Long hours and hard labor cause some to abandon their careers

July 29,2017
Social welfare workers engage in outdoor activities with the homeless. Men make up only one-fourth of Korea’s social welfare workforce, leading to what many call unfair treatment. [YONHAP]
This series features articles written by KC University students participating in the Korea JoongAng Daily’s internship program. All articles were written under the guidance of our staff reporters. -Ed.

A 23-year-old surnamed Jung recalls seeing a spark one day at work in the Seoul Welfare Center. He was changing an LED light bulb to prepare for a special event.

“I felt pain in my hands,” he says. “My head was dizzy at the same time. Then my body went stiff as if I was paralyzed.”

Jung, who only revealed his surname out of fear of retribution, sustained hand burns. He was hospitalized for a week and had to treat his wound with ointment for three more weeks after he was discharged.

“I was lucky to have immediately pulled my hand when I saw the spark,” says Jung, “Had I hesitated, it would have turned out to be a big deal.”

The sheer thought of how differently the result could have been frightens him, he confesses.

Looking back, Jung thinks he was a victim of gender discrimination. What made him change the light bulb that day - and subsequently end up in the hospital - was the very fact he was not a woman, he explains.

And he’s used to it. On other days, Jung mops the floor and scrubs the toilet, which most of his female coworkers never budge to do.

“At work, I’m at a higher risk of injury because I don’t have the professional skills required for the tasks that I actually do.”

Women vastly outnumber men in Korea’s social welfare industry, according to data from the Korean Social Workers’ Association. Up to last year, the accumulated number of female workers was 638,897, nearly 2.8 times higher than their male counterparts of 225,372.

What feeds this gender imbalance is the country’s cultural tendency to assign men to all hard physical labor at work and portray the opposite sex as fragile, tender and weak, sources who recently spoke with the Korea JoongAng Daily said.

When the same custom applies to a field with a far lower number of men, where there are numerous errands that require physical strength, that’s when men suffer and start giving second thoughts about their career, the interviewees stressed.

Kim, another social welfare worker in Seoul who also wished to give only his surname, says his staff comprises of 20 people - but only two, including himself, are men.

Kim can’t even freely use his vacation because his absence would mean there is only one man in the welfare center - only one man to handle the dirt. The 25-year-old, for that reason, is stuck spending days off when the entire staff is least busy, usually on national holidays or weekends.

“I feel exhausted because I can’t take enough rest,” says Kim. “It’s physically and mentally taxing. Sometimes, I’m forced to stay home not because I asked for a vacation but solely because the center doesn’t need me to tend to any overweight patients.”

Kim is worried that his stress might affect his attitude at work, and the way he treats his clients.

“I’ve worked with five male colleagues over the past three years here, but they never seem to stay put,” Kim says. “Some transfer to other welfare centers, while others leave the industry and pick up a new job.”

When Kim asked three of them why they decided to leave, they all cited the “unreasonable” environment of their workforce.

And his female colleagues? Only two got reemployed at another center.

Another man, surnamed Kim, who’s been working for the past decade at a welfare facility for the disabled in Nowon District, northern Seoul, complains feeling unequal treatment on his very own fashion.

His female colleagues are free to dye their hair, but Kim isn’t, which goes to make him feel a sense of “oppression” in his self-expression.

“Guys have to wear business attire every day and we can’t try out new hairdos,” says Kim. “It gets us when we see other women at work wearing whatever they want, styling their hair however they wish.”

Kim wants a men’s-only rest area. He’s allowed to use the current lounge at work, but it’s packed with his female coworkers, which discourages him to step inside and take a breather. A local professor of social welfare studies advises male workers to communicate with their supervisors, adding it goes the same for females as well.

“When you have a hard time at work, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk to your boss,” says the professor. “If you don’t speak up out of fear of being disadvantaged, you’ll end up in a situation you can’t endure.”

And the result of that, the professor continues, is leaving the social welfare industry for good. As for Jung, he confesses feeling relieved about some positive changes at his workforce, such as a bonus when he works overtime, which in the past seemed like a luxury.

These days, professional technicians drop by his center to cover some of the manual work he was forced to do in the past. Still, Jung hardly feels any better when his muscles ache. His shoulder and back suffers the most. It could help if his center offers education on at least how to relieve the pain.

“We take medicine and attach pain relief patches on our body,” says Jung. “There are no guidelines on how to manage our health at work.”

BY SIM SEUNG-OH, BAN SUNG-JIN [sso1100@empal.com, tjdwlswkd77@naver.com]

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