‘We are humans too.’

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‘We are humans too.’


On Sunday, August 14, I arrived at Gimpo Airport. It was after 5 p.m. Among the tourists clad in sunglasses and shorts, I could see a woman in her 50s, wearing a red union t-shirt. Ms. Y is part of the cleaning staff at the airport. I followed her out of the airport building. The waiting room for the cleaning workers was in the “Passenger Terminal Renovation Construction Site” beyond a white fence. She pointed at a door in the middle of the fence.

“Last winter, this door was welded. The cleaning carts may have been bothersome as members of the National Assembly drove by to the VIP room. No one told us that the door was being blocked off, so all of a sudden, we couldn’t go in. We couldn’t go home. They are trying to please those high up but don’t consider us as human beings.”

A new entrance was far from the VIP room. Cleaning staff had to endure the dust from the construction site and go around. When it rained, they had to push the cleaning cart through the mud and stumble often. There were about 15 cleaners, all women in their 50s, in the waiting room. And they began to speak up.

“Two of us clean each floor of this huge airport complex, trash cans, restrooms, waiting room floors and smoking sections. Every day, 150 hundred-liter trash bags are collected from the departure hall. Each trash bag is filled, and it goes through the security. My wrists, shoulders, back, knees, ankles and everywhere hurt. But we are told to smile when we work. It is really hard to smile.”

A shift is either from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. or from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. We work two days and get a day off. One of my coworkers has been working since 1988 Seoul Olympics, and she still gets paid the same wage. The lowest hourly rate is 6,030 won ($5.53). We are working in this hot weather, but there is no shower facility to use after work.”

“What’s harder to endure is the insults by the managers. They say, here’s garbage, come pick it up. If you wanted to make more money, you should have gone to a good college. We are to submit written explanation for having a coffee or talking to coworkers. When I used an annual leave for family event, I was told to take a photo and upload it on a messenger. Why am I still working here? My husband is sick and I have children to support. At least, insurance is covered.”

The cleaning staff decided to form a union in February. In late 2015, the cleaning contractor promised to raise the wage the following year, but they found out that it only reflects the minimum wage increase. “We’ve been fooled,” she said. A union membership application was secretly circulated, and 103 joined in 10 days. The union of 120 members was formed, and they put together a questionnaire.

“I was forced to sit on his lap at a company dinner. He kissed me forcibly.” “I was sexually harassed at a karaoke. My breasts have bruises.” “I was touched forcibly.” 51-year-old union leader Sohn Kyung-hee and other members revealed what they were too embarrassed to discuss. To show her determination, Sohn shaved her head on August 12. She says she has no regrets.

“I shaved my head to make reporters come. Truth is more important. When I interviewed for the job four years ago, the director asked me if I would condone injustice. I said I could, but now, I can’t any more. Sexual harassment and assaults are not committed by one or two managers. When one is fired for sexual harassment, another is assigned and does it again.”

They have two demands: an hourly wage of 8,200 won with a 400 percent bonus and compliance with government guidelines. And they want to be treated like humans.

“The directors and managers are sent by the Korea Airports Corporation (KAC). When the contractor changes, the director remains. For the director, we are forced to entertain at dinner. Nothing will change without KAC’s promise for improvement. We cannot go on with human rights infringement.”

I must confess that I had misunderstood them. As I was headed for the airport, I had thought they would be gloomy. But they were glowing. They are not expendables. They are mothers, wives, sisters and themselves. We may not notice them, but they are humans, living and breathing, feeling rage and fighting for their rights.

JoongAng Ilbo, August 16, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kwon Suk-chun
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