How the vulnerable dieA tragic memory surfaced when I heard the news of a 19-year-old mechanic’s life being brutally cut short by a tragic accident while working on a platform door at Guui Station in Seoul. On Jan. 13, 1992, Byun Byung-il, a 34-year-old maintenance worker, was killed after being hit by a train at 9:44 a.m. during a shift at Sinseol-dong Station on subway line No. 1 in Seoul. His colleagues were in sweaty and dusty uniforms when I arrived at the scene to cover the story. They told me I was the only reporter to come.
Byun was in charge of signaling the arrival of a train. He made the usual signal to his colleagues and jumped into the opposite lane, where he was hit by a train coming from the other direction. The accident took place at a point where the trains shift lanes. There was no safe place for him to take shelter as the two trains went by.
Signaling the arrival of trains to avoid crashes should have been the job of an automated machine, not a human being jumping between lanes to escape trains in a dark tunnel. Line No. 1 at the time had junctions at four stations — Cheongnyangni, Sinseol-dong, Jonggak and Seoul Station. None had shelters for the signalmen.
Under subway regulations, there should have been enough space for evacuation on each side of the wall at intersections. The maintenance regulations also required there be a space of at least 20 meters (65 feet) to safely avoid passing trains. Authorities were plainly violating the regulations by placing their workers in those tunnels.
A quarter of a century has passed. But safety regulations still remain an ideal, an abstraction. It is a requirement that two maintenance mechanics work on the job of fixing a platform door. But that rule was simply ignored. Subcontractors are obliged to pay penalties if they do not arrive within an hour to make the repair. Their workloads were heavy due to frequent faults reported in our poorly constructed subway system.
The victim of the most recent tragedy was the only repairman available to get to the scene on time. He arrived at the Guui Station staff office at 5:45 p.m. to get the keys to the malfunctioning platform doors. He finished work on the first door and moved on to the next. He was killed because he did not have enough time to fix the platform door and get through it before the train arrived. His life could have been saved if there was another worker there to help him.
The authorities’ excuses have not changed from those of two decades ago. The public subway operator blamed the maintenance worker for being clumsy and said there had not been any industrial deaths before his. It lied. Five people have died from train collisions while on the job. Seoul Metro only apologized after a public uproar.
The victim was a contract worker at a maintenance company commissioned by Seoul Metro and earned 1,446,000 won ($1,200) a month. If he had been on Seoul Metro’s permanent payroll, would he have been sent alone to repair those doors? Repairmen complain that contract workers are like invisible beings and are constantly in danger on the job.
Many things have changed greatly over the years. What has not changed is the discrimination against people on the lower rungs of the social ladder. People with power and money are never satisfied and unite to defend their prerogatives. The elite members of the bureaucratic, judiciary and military communities collude with the business sector to fatten themselves. No one pays any attention to the contract workforce. The administrators paid handsomely for their office jobs, and the subway labor unions have no interest in the welfare of part-timers. Can a society so devoid of compassion and pity last?
The accident underscored that laws and regulations offer little protection for the weak. Jeon Tae-il, a 22-year-old tailor at a dusty garment factory in the Seoul Peace Market, burned himself to death in 1970 to raise awareness of harsh working conditions and demanded adherence to basic labor laws. As he died, he cried out, “We are not machines; enforce the labor code.”
The mother of the 19-year-old mechanic killed on May 28 wailed that her son was killed just doing what he was trained to do.
Over the last half century, we have achieved democratization and joined the ranks of industrial powerhouses. Why are Korean workers still treated like machines? Kim was killed by the society around him. The cruel inequalities must be abhorred and fought to the end.
This tragic death raises a very basic question: for whom does this nation exist? Does our system merely feed the rich and powerful, or does it build a community that cares for the weak?
The nation must end outsourcing dangerous jobs to the weak and vulnerable. The National Assembly must quickly pass a bill that requires jobs directly associated with public safety to be handled by salaried workers. The bill was introduced after the sinking of the Sewol ferry. It is the least that society can do to atone for lives that have been brutally cut short.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 8, Page 31